The Chestertown Redistricting Committee is scheduled to present a map at the March 15 Town Council meeting that relies on 2010 census data to reapportion the voting districts – because 2020 census data will not be available in time for the town’s 2021 election on Nov. 2.
But the 2010 Census data will be more current than the data that is now a quarter-century old.
“We’ve all settled on a new ward map draft,” said Town Zoning Administrator Kees de Mooy at the March 1 meeting of the Chestertown Council. “It’s going to be a dramatic change from what we had before; a lot of people are going to be in a different district than they were before.”
De Mooy, the committee’s coordinator, said there is unanimous support among the members for the map and most of the committee members will attend the March 15 meeting to discuss the new districts lines.
The seats for Mayor, Ward 1 and Ward 3 will be on the ballot in November, The town has been under pressure from the ACLU since January of 2020 to correct the malapportioned voting districts because they violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which requires voting districts be equal in population to the extent possible and abide by the-one-person-one-vote mandate.
Chestertown last reapportioned its districts in 1995 – and since then the population of Ward 3 has swelled to twice that of Ward 1 due to real estate development and population shifts.
“Thus giving individual voters of Ward 1 a disproportionate voice in local elections, and Ward 3 voters proportionately less,” The ACLU said in a letter to Mayor Chris Cerino dated Jan. 17, 2020.
With the demand to fix the apportionment, the ACLU implored the town to strengthen minority participation.
“The existing four-ward election system in Chestertown is severely malapportioned, and also unfairly dilutes black voting strength,” the ACLU said in its letter to Mayor Chris Cerino on Jan. 17, 2020.”It is imperative that the problems of Chestertown’s election system be corrected in advance of the next election.”
Mayor Chris Cerino reflected at Monday’s meeting that the ACLU letter was “menacing” and said the wards were “technically illegal” based on the one-person-one-vote rule.
“We had hoped that next month we would get the Census results,” he said at Monday’s meeting. “But it looks like we’re not going to be able to really do that…before the next town election on Nov. 2 of this year.”
Cerino said the new map using 2010 data should be adopted and then revised after the election when the 2020 census is final.
“It may need to be tweaked between this election and the following election, he said.
The committee was formed last year shortly after the ACLU letter. The committee consisted of two citizens from each ward that would use 2020 Census data – anticipated to be finalized by March 31, 2021 – to draw the district lines, but U.S. Census Bureau announced last month that the final tally on the US population would not be available until Sept. 30.
This would have left only 32 days for candidates to file to run and for voters to become familiar with their voting districts.
Chestertown’s malapportioned districts came to light in a story published on Dec. 11, 2019 when it was learned that the voter registration rolls in Ward 3 were significantly higher than Ward 1 – to a point where a vote in Ward 3 was worth half as much as a vote in Ward 1.
“Giving Ward 3 voters proportionally less voice,” the ACLU letter said.
The Fourteenth Amendment mandates that voting districts in a state or local jurisdiction be equal in population with no less than a 10 percent deviation between districts. But current voter registration rolls in Chestertown 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. Deviations that exceed 10 percent in local jurisdictions are generally considered “constitutionally suspect” unless there is a compelling reason.
The ACLU found that the population was 70 percent more than average in Ward 3 and 26 percent below average in Ward 1, an overall deviation of 96 percent, “a variation that is constitutionally unacceptable,” the ACLU said.
Not addressed at the meeting was the issue of aligning local elections with federal and state elections in even years to increase voter turnout. Odd year elections are considered “off-cycle” elections and historically result in low voter turnout.
Voter turnout in Baltimore in 2016 jumped from 13 to 60 percent after the Maryland General Assembly voted in 2012 to align Baltimore’s local election with the federal elections beginning in 2016. The measure extended the terms of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and members of the City Council to additional year for the 2016 election only.