Delaware elections will shape legislative districts
To the casual observer, Delaware's legislative districts can look a little like Rorschach blots, spatters of ink
whose meaning is left to the beholder.
But politicians know the lines that define the districts can help define the political balance of power in the
General Assembly for a decade to come -- and those lines are about to be redrawn.
The requirement that states redraw their districts to reflect the results of the 2010 Census makes the stakes in
the Nov. 2 election higher than most. The party in power can draw the lines to its advantage, making it difficult
for the minority party to win subsequent elections.
"When they can draw the lines to protect their jobs, our votes mean nothing," said Frank Sims, director of the
Civic League for New Castle County. In 2002, when the House and Senate were deadlocked over redistricting, Sims filed a lawsuit that resulted in a court order to quickly redraw the lines or have the court impose its own map.
In this election, the chances of the Senate changing hands are nil, thanks to the Democrats' 15-6 majority and the
fact that five incumbents are unopposed.
In play this year is the House, where the Democrats hold a 24-17 advantage. With all 41 seats up for grabs, the GOP
has a shot at regaining the majority it lost in the Democratic blowout of 2008.
There are five open seats in the House, four of which are held by retiring Republicans. The GOP would have to
retain those four seats and pick up four Democratic seats to win the 21 seats necessary to regain control.
But retaining those four Republican seats is not a given. The 24th District seat long held by the retiring
Republican Rep. William A. Oberle could flip to the Democratic column, given the Democrats' 6,747-3,017
If the House Democrats can maintain their lock on power, the caucus will have its first shot at redrawing district
lines since 1980. Some Republicans privately fret that Democrats still smarting over the 2002 reapportionment --
which combined six incumbents into three districts in New Castle County -- will seek retribution this time around
But at least one Democrat says he doesn't believe that will be the case.
"I have the ultimate confidence in that the Democratic Party is not making this a nakedly political exercise," said
Rep. John Kowalko, D-Newark South. Kowalko said he has "all the confidence in the world in our leadership" to be
fair if the Democrats are at the helm next year.
However, he conceded that after "years of being mistreated," there's always the temptation for Democrats to strike
back. "That's always a palpable fear," he said.
Not just Democrats have suffered when the lines are drawn by the opposing party. Sen. Liane Sorenson, R-Hockessin,
saw her district line drawn down the street in front of her home -- meaning her neighbors couldn't vote for her.
No matter which party is in charge, there will be one major difference between redistricting now and redistricting
in 2002. In 2002, the maps were drawn behind closed doors. Now, the General Assembly is subject to the Freedom of
Information Act, the state's open-meeting law.
"They can't do anything unless it's done in public," Sims said. "They will be exposed in terms of how they draw the
lines," he said, adding that the open redistricting process used by New Castle County Council has worked well.
Reapportionment battles are nothing new to Delaware: One of them went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Prior to 1962, the General Assembly was apportioned on the basis of geography, not population. That allowed Kent
and Sussex counties to dominate the Legislature, even as the population of northern New Castle County grew. In
effect, a downstate resident's vote was worth twice that of someone upstate.
But in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in the Tennessee case of Baker v. Carr that states had to draw legislative
districts to include roughly equal populations and thus ensure "one man, one vote."
The General Assembly then came up with a scheme to have the House apportioned by population but leave the Senate
apportioned by county. In Roman v. Sincock, the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the proposal was unconstitutional.
More recent efforts to reform the reapportionment process have withered.
Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, would like to see an independent commission draw district lines, something that
already takes place in 12 other states. She's introduced legislation to do so, but thus far her efforts have been frustrated.
"It just didn't move," said Blevins, the majority whip. "It was always assigned to a committee that didn't hold a hearing on it."
Her most recent effort, Senate Bill 20, would have established an 11-member commission to be selected by the leadership of both houses. The commission would redraw district lines, then hold public hearings on the plan. A final plan would be submitted for action by the General Assembly and the governor.
"I do think that we will see this happen," Blevins said, adding that such a proposal might gain support after this round of redistricting.
Even with a redistricting commission, Blevins said, the task will remain difficult.
"It's a very personal issue, what your district is going to look like, and legislators take it very personally. It is contentious," she said.
Kowalko, who was a co-sponsor of Blevins' bill, said pushing for an independent redistricting commission to begin operating after the 2020 Census might be easier to sell now.
"People, when they get power during a redistricting cycle, they're reluctant to do it independently, because maybe in the case of the House Democrats, there are many concerns that they were unfairly treated in previous redistricting and they would like to atone for that," he said.
Sims, though, doesn't want to wait another decade to try to take some of the politics out of reapportionment. "It's going to be resubmitted again and we're just going to have to lobby for it," he said. "It's a close call, but not really if you get to work early and get it to the floor. ... It's a matter of faith and persistence."
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