With the 2020 census around the corner, Chestertown is closing in on a quarter-century since it last reapportioned its four voting districts.

State law gives no redistricting guidance to municipalities; so local jurisdictions like Chestertown are governed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, court rulings and the U.S. Constitution.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment mandates that voting districts in a state or local jurisdiction be equal in population to the extent possible. But current voter registration rolls in Chestertown may indicate that the wards vary in population — from the smallest to the largest — by more than 10 percent. Deviations that exceed 10 percent in local jurisdictions are generally considered  “constitutionally suspect” unless there is a compelling reason.

As of the 2019 election for Wards 2 and 4, the most current census data available puts the town’s population at 5,054, and the tally of registered voters shows increases in each ward since the town last redrew its districts in 1995, most notably in Ward 3.

Ward 1 –    760
Ward 2 –    611
Ward 3 – 1,236
Ward 4 –    676

Chestertown officials could not provide census data by ward for this story. But if the wards were equally apportioned within the 10 percent range, each ward should have roughly 1,250 residents. This means Ward 3 is hovering at or near 100 percent voter registration.

Chestertown’s 1995 redistricting and apportionment ordinance recognized that over two decades had passed since the previous reapportionment and the need to increase population and voter registration in Ward 2, historically lower than the other wards.

In attempting to balance the voter rolls and population in each ward, the Ward Apportionment Study Committee, appointed in 1993, drew new boundaries that moved parts of Wards 1, 3 and 4 into Ward 2. See proposed map changes from March of 1995.

The final tally for the four wards when the new map was adopted in 1995:

Ward 1 population    917, with 668 registered voters
Ward 2 population 1,058, with 449 registered voters
Ward 3 population 1,167, with 573 registered voters
Ward 4 population 1,327 (includes 300 college students) with 473 registered voters.

The reapportionment committee put the town’s population at 4,169, and the adopted map anticipated growth in Wards 1, 3 and 4 — and allowed for the expansion of Ward 2 should annexation occur in the future. See the 1995 adopted map.

The adopted committee report used the most current voter registration rolls from the Kent County Board of Elections and the most current census data from the Maryland Department of Planning. The committee’s final report said, “care was taken to preserve the minority voter balance in each ward.”

Though Maryland municipalities, like in all states, must establish their own redistricting plans that comply with the VRA and the Constitution, there is no requirement in Chestertown’s charter that mandates redistricting after a census. The Charter simply states:

“It shall be the duty of the Mayor and Council, by Ordinance, to divide the Town into four (4) wards and apportion the Council in such manner for election purposes so as to reflect population and voter equality.”

There are 157 municipalities in Maryland and Chestertown is one of 30 that has voting districts to elect council members, according to the Maryland Municipal League. Of the 30 municipalities still using voting districts,  six require a decennial census; Chestertown is not one of them.