How redistricting went in southern Delaware (and could it be improved?)

How redistricting went in southern Delaware (and could it be improved?)
Photo by sheri silver / Unsplash

Delaware representatives recently finished carving up the political pie for another 10 years through the redistricting process.

This happens after each census. Politicians nationwide have been at their most creative over the years when doing this bit of the political process, demonstrating a multitude of clever ways to slice and dice the electorate to benefit themselves. Since the state legislatures control the process, the spoils often go to the party in power.

For the politically minded, which seems to be most people these days, redistricting raises a few obvious questions:

Was the process fair?

Which party benefited the most?

How will the shifting district lines affect politics where I live?

Advocacy groups on both sides of the aisle across the country would like to add another question: Is there a better way to do all this? (They think yes.)

Let’s take a look at what happened with some of these questions in the latest district shuffle, especially as they relate to southern Delaware.  

What changed

Delaware’s population has ballooned since the last redistricting, especially in Sussex. Both the Delaware House and Senate kept the same number of districts, but there was some shuffling.  

On the Senate side, the lines shifted around but the districts remained in the same general area and sometimes very similar in shape. In Sussex, the biggest change was for Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, whose 19th district formerly covered an area from the western Sussex line all the way to the inland bays. In the new configuration, Sen. Dave Wilson’s district migrates south and Sen. Bryant Richardson’s district migrates north, bumping Pettyjohn’s district to a more central location. Sussex still has five senators like before.

A bigger change came in the House, with increased beach population helping bring in another district. A number of Sussex districts kept their shapes fairly intact, but the beach districts reshuffled to welcome District 4 to the Long Neck area.

Like many newcomers to the beach area, District 4 originally came from northern Delaware. It had been represented by disgraced Rep. Gerald Brady, a Democrat, who announced he would not run for reelection after an uproar over an ethnic slur he used in an email.

This brought an extra seat to heavily Republican southern Delaware, although it remains to be seen if the beach districts, with their influx of newcomers, will continue to vote Republican.

Republican Rep. Daniel Short, who represents the Seaford area, did not go so far as to predict a GOP win in the new seat, but noted that there was an immediate interest from GOP candidates in running for the new district. “There’s going to be a good viable pool of candidates for that new district that are willing to run,” he said.

Was it fair?

The ground rules for redistricting are that states need to make the districts roughly equal in population, and not discriminate against minority communities by dividing them up so their votes don’t make an impact. Delaware legislators also adopted traditional guidelines aiming to make district lines make sense and ensure minorities have a voice, according to the General Assembly's website. The Delaware Constitution also prohibits unduly favoring any person or party, although the devil is in the interpretation of “unduly.”  

The odds of making everyone happy with a redistricting are approximately zero, but lawmakers and advocates I spoke to, while not what you’d call giddy over how it panned out, seemed reasonably happy with the results. Some Republicans said was fair enough, and advocates said basically the same thing and that it was a start toward a fairer process.

“To the General Assembly’s credit, this year was a far more open process than it was 10 years ago,” Jack Young, a co-chair of the redistricting committee for the League of Women Voters of Delaware, said.

“There are always ways that you can improve on the fitness of maps. I think the General Assembly did a reasonably good job.”

Sen. David Sokola, a Democrat who represents District 8 and serves as president pro tem of the Senate, praised staff for helping get the work done on a tight schedule and framed the process as “pretty open and transparent.”

“My goal wasn’t just to make something that we can defend as legal, I wanted it to be something that was fair,” he said.  

Legislative Hall in Dover. Photo by Maddy Lauria

GOP Rep. Short portrayed a process with tensions, but with give and take. “We were trying to avoid the gerrymandering situation that everybody talks about and I think to some great degree, we accomplished that.”

Wilson said the process is always political, but he was satisfied with how things shook out with District 18, which he represents: “I’m pretty happy. I think it was fair.”

There were, however, a few hiccups. Republican senators objected to the fact that quite a few Democratic districts up north had smaller populations than Republican districts in the south, meaning in theory that Democrats were making more with less.

“It might not add another district; what it would do is it changes the lines,” Young said. “And as you change the lines, you might create slightly different districts.”

Wilson said if the math had been done differently, it could have resulted in another seat farther downstate although perhaps not in Sussex.

The rules set for the process were that district populations couldn’t deviate more than 5 percent higher or lower from what would be the perfectly even number. Every district met that guideline, but nine districts in Democratic dominated northern Delaware were slightly under the ideal number, while six of the seven Republican districts were over, in cases by almost the maximum allowable.

All Senate Republicans voted against the redistricting, which of course passed anyway, 14-7.

Wilson said the vote against the new districts was drawing attention to the disagreement over the district populations.

In Sokola’s telling, Sussex County’s five senators matched the average district size well in the past, and still do with the current population.

He also said Democrats did outreach on the process from day one, helped Republicans with the technical part of the map-drawing process, listened to concerns and made adjustments.

“To then come back and basically do what you did, I did not think was a very appropriate thing for them to do. I was disappointed,” he said.

On the House side things were much smoother, with the new districts getting almost unanimous approval, 40-1. When the proposed districts were suggested, Republicans balked at GOP Rep. Mike Ramone ending up in the same district as Democratic Rep. Paul Baumbach, but that was changed in the final version.  

“We talked about it a little bit back and forth, and ultimately, they did the right thing,” Short said.

Common Cause Delaware, part of a national nonprofit that says it works for fair and open elections, praised this year’s redistricting as being a step in the right direction, but also criticized several aspects, calling it “unnecessarily rushed” and saying legislators gave too much consideration to protecting the incumbents and keeping them in their districts.

Many of the incumbents ended up on the edge of their districts, said Claire Snyder-Hall, executive director of Common Cause Delaware, indicating the lines were drawn around them so they wouldn’t have to switch districts.

“When maps are drawn around incumbents, for the purpose of helping them get reelected, and communities are divided,” she said, “that undermines the ability of the community to choose its representative.” It’s also a concern because of the rule against unduly favoring a person or party, she said.  

At the Oct. 19 public hearing on the proposed districts, some participants also raised concerns over the district that includes Lewes and Rehoboth. It gave up part of its territory to Republican Sen. Brian Pettyjohn’s district, and opponents feared it would dilute the vote of the LGBTQ community by moving some of those voters into a more conservative district.

Senators did not redraw that district in the final version. To include the area in question, Sokola said, would probably have put it over the population threshold. “There are ways we could have done it, but it would have had a domino effect elsewhere. We think we did a good faith effort.”

As far as the “very rushed” timeline, Snyder-Hall said Common Cause applauded state leaders for including public hearings, but people still didn’t have enough time to weigh in.

“The House maps were posted, and there were only three business days to be able to make sense of them,” she said. Even as a full time staff member of an advocacy group, she was scrambling to get a handle on things, she said.

Snyder-Hall acknowledged that census data came in late, but said the concern politicians showed over the timeline was more over giving them time to meet district residency requirements before the election, which she called “prioritizing the interests of politicians over communities.”

Can this whole thing be improved?

Common Cause is calling for an independent redistricting commission in Delaware that would take the process out of the hands of politicians, and the League of Women Voters supports the idea nationally as well.

“The process would minimize partisan interests, and instead focus on the best interest of the people of Delaware,” Common Cause of Delaware said in a statement shortly after the new districts were approved.

Sokola said he would support that, and has in fact supported bills to do just that in the past.  

“I do think that an independent commission is the right way to go … I think that’s the best way that you ultimately get fair, one person, one vote districts,” Young said. He pointed to a cautionary example, however. “We’ve seen that the efforts in Virginia to do an independent commission has led to deadlock and to throwing the matter to the Supreme Court, which is not a way to do redistricting in a representative democracy.”

Common Cause pointed to California’s model as the best for an independent redistricting commission that minimizes partisan interference. The California model lets citizens apply to be on the commission and puts them through a selection process designed to result in a balance of political interests.

Sussex Republicans were skeptical that this kind of model would work.

“How are you going to find an independent commission? I mean, even there’s various groups have weighed in that say they’re nonpolitical, they’re not partisan in any way,” Short said. “But you can just see the way that they act … and the things that they actually have as policy positions.”  

He plugged, instead, a bill he co-sponsored that would use partisan self-interest to arrive at fairer districts, by allowing competing parties to make decisions on districts the other party drew. A summary of the bill compared it to children competing for dessert: “The first child cuts the cake, while the second has the option of selecting which piece he or she wishes to consume.”  

“No matter how you do it, I think that it’s politics,” Wilson said.

“I just look at it that, you know, take your medicine, you’re gonna get better or you’re gonna get worse.”

Snyder-Hall sees it differently. “There’s probably no way to make it completely nonpolitical, but there’s degrees of self interest … when legislators draw the maps themselves, obviously, they have a strong self interest in getting reelected,” she said.  

“There are ways that you can create a redistricting commission that makes it less political than it currently is.”

Whatever the case, it’s a conversation that will likely continue for next time around.

“I think there’s momentum right now; a lot of us who are engaged in the process are ready to go on to the next step, which would be thinking about how to codify the positive things that happened this year, and then build so that we remedy some of the shortcomings,” Snyder-Hall said.

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