With the November town election just months away, the Chestertown Town Council voted 4-1 Monday to adopt a voting district map that ends the town’s illegal districts and creates a majority-minority district that is in line with a mandate that came down from the ACLU last year.

The ACLU found last year that Ward 3 had twice as many voters as any of the other three wards and that black voter strength was diluted in Ward 3 under the current map, which is a quarter-century old.

With minor tweaking, the new map mirrors a suggested map presented by the ACLU in January 2020 and creates compact districts. The new map also creates a majority-minority district in Ward 3 that complies with the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court has interpreted the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to require voting districts be equal in population to the extent possible–one person, one vote. Any deviation between the smallest and the largest district in a jurisdiction is constitutionally suspect if it exceeds 10 percent. That was not the case under the now-repealed Chestertown map which had a 96 percent deviation.

Malapportionment dilutes voter influence in the most populated wards and unfairly increases voter influence in the least populated wards. The onus is on local government to make elections fair and maintain equal apportionment across the voting districts.

When made aware of this problem by Dan Menefee’s reporting of the 2019 election, which found a disparity in the voter registration rolls, the council’s reaction was silence until the town was put on notice by the ACLU to fix the districts.

Menefee reached out the ACLU when he suspected that the population distribution in Chestertown’s four wards was most likely illegal. The ACLU confirmed and notified the town that the problem was serious.

When pressed by the ACLU, some members of the council pushed back. Mayor Cerino accused the ACLU of trying “to gerrymander a ward that is already represented by an African American.”

Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver, the council’s only black member, said the ACLU had overreached in the mandate to create a majority-minority district.

“All politics is local, I think in this particular instance the ACLU has overreached in its assumption that there needs to be this black voting block in Chestertown,ā€ he said at a January 2020 council meeting ā€œI agree with the opportunity to have parity in the wards in terms of [population]. Iā€™m not on board with this thing about having this voting block that is dedicated to trying to elect an African-American per se.”

But the council did form a redistricting committee and initially decided to rely on 2020 census data that was due to the states in March of 2021. The redistricting committee later found it prudent to use 2010 census data to redraw the districts when it became clear that the 2020 census data would not arrive in time for the 2021 election, when Wards 1 and 3 and the mayor’s seat are in the ballot.

We applaud council’s positive direction on voting rights. The new map provides residents and potential candidates time to understand their new wards and participate in fair democratic process.

The Kent Pilot particularly lauds Councilman David Foster for his recognition that the malapportionment went on too long and was an embarrassment to the town.

We also support Councilman Foster’s suggestion that the council should amend the Charter to require review of voting districts following every decennial census. The State of Maryland has a constitutional obligation to review and reapportion congressional and legislative districts following every decennial census data. But the state has no authority to require municipalities to do the same.

Instead, municipalities are required to follow the Constitution on their own, as the ACLU pointed out last year, and many municipalities in Maryland review their decennial census data to consider reapportionment and understand population shifts.

The Kent Pilot also commends the efforts of Chestertown Zoning Adminisitrator Kees de Mooy for guiding the redistricting commission in the creation of voting districts that all of our citizens can be proud of.

The Kent Pilot also strongly encourages the council to hold town elections that coincide with federal elections. Aligning local elections this way almost always increases voter turnout.

If prompt action is taken, a charter amendment could be on the November ballot and take effect in the 2022 elections.

The Kent Pilot

Feature image: KOMUnews