By State Rep. Lyndon Yearick
The identity of the people representing your interests in Legislative Hall could be impacted by a once-a-decade process now underway.
Redistricting, also known as reapportionment, is a process that is constitutionally mandated to take place once every ten years following the U.S. Census. This is performed to guarantee – to the best of our ability – that every citizen receives equal representation at all levels of government.
In Delaware, the reapportionment process is most apparent in the state legislature where we have 41 seats in the State House of Representatives and 21 seats in the State Senate. All 62 districts will need to be redrawn to reflect population shifts that have occurred over the last ten years.
Using the House of Representatives as an example, here is how the process works. In the 2020 U.S. Census, Delaware had 989,948 citizens – a 10.2% increase since the last Census in 2010. All House districts need to be relatively equivalent in size. Dividing the current state population by 41 yields an ideal size of 24,145 people for each representative district. The law allows for district populations to be plus or minus 5% of this target.
Each state has a different method for crafting new legislative districts. In some jurisdictions, independent redistricting commissions attempt to draw the lines in an unbiased fashion. However, these well-intentioned bodies are not always immune to political influence or accurately reflect the diversity of their jurisdictions.
In Delaware, the process is starkly partisan. Whatever political party controls each legislative chamber at the time redistricting is done has the unfettered ability to create the new maps however they see fit. In this cycle, as was the case in 2010, Democrats control both the House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office.
There are laws guiding reapportionment that are intended to provide safeguards against the malicious manipulation of district lines. Generally, districts are not to be drawn in such a way that overtly favors a particular legislator or the interests of a political party – a practice known as “gerrymandering.” Districts are required to be compact, follow recognizable boundaries (e.g. streets, rivers, rail lines, etc.), and be contiguous. The new maps are also barred from being delineated in such a way that would reduce the influence of a large minority voting block present in the existing district.
In actual practice, reapportionment laws are difficult to enforce. The courts are often reluctant to get involved in what judges perceive as a distinctly legislative process. Still, every round of redistricting results in bitter disagreements among a wide range of stakeholders leading to a multitude of lawsuits nationwide.
Democrats in the Delaware House of Representatives and Senate are currently in the process of drafting a new set of maps. Sometime in October, they will share these maps with the public and hold hearings to gather comments. This is a process in which citizens should take an interest.
Reapportionment can produce a myriad of unexpected results. Many citizens will find their homes located in a new district. Lawmakers with which they have had longstanding relationships may no longer represent them after the November 2022 races. People who had considered running for office may find the landscape considerably changed, having been drawn into districts where they have little support or would unexpectedly face strong incumbents.
Even if citizens remain in their current districts, their legislators may not. It is not unusual in our state, especially in situations where political advantage is sought, for the majority party to move two incumbents of the minority party into the same district. The partisan move accomplishes two things. It potentially forces two members of the opposition party into a primary election against each other, while leaving a district formerly held by the opposition with no incumbent to defend it.
The hearings on the new maps will be your chance to engage the process and voice your opinion. There is no certainty that the new maps will be altered based on this input, but a lack of feedback all but guarantees the proposals will remain unchanged.
After citizens have weighed-in, the maps will be converted into a bill that will be voted on by the General Assembly. Since the measure requires only a simple majority for passage, minority Republican legislators will have no realistic opportunity to alter the lines favored by Democratic mapmakers. The bill will then head to the governor for his signature. Once enacted, the new maps will be in effect for candidates running in the elections next November