College Park settles students' voting suit, will redraw districts

October 24, 1990|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff Correspondent Special correspondent Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

COLLEGE PARK -- A federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of voting districts in this college town was settled last night when the City Council agreed on a 6-2 vote to redraw the lines in a way that gives more weight to student residents.

The settlement of the lawsuit, filed by five students in August 1989, also makes it easier for students to register in time to cast ballots in an election.

As part of the compromise, the city agreed to shorten to 30 days both its 90-day residency requirement and the 90-day period before an election when voter registration books are closed. The policy effectively prevented University of Maryland students who moved to campus in September from registering to vote in November elections.

"I think you made the best deal that could have been made," Councilman Joseph Cotter told the city's attorney, Charles Fax. "Now we can get on with our business. This represents a reasoned and reasonable solution. It's in the best interests of the city, and it's time to accept a settlement."

But Councilman Michael Jacobs, one of the two dissenters, said he feared the settlement left the city vulnerable to future lawsuits over redistricting.

"I have a view of my own that this may be a challengeable settlement. I have done my math, and I believe that reapportionment should be drawn on the basis of census population figures alone," he said.

The new formula will take into consideration both census population figures and voter registration.

For decades, the city had drawn council districts on the basis of voter registration rather than on population, as is done in most political jurisdictions in the United States.

The result was that a council district that included college dormitories and student apartments had as many as 10,000 people, while seven others in the city had only 1,500 to 2,000 residents, said William G. Salmond, who represented students in the case. Therefore, the student-dominated district could elect only one representative among the eight on the council.

The city agreed to redraw its election districts using a formula that will give more weight to total population and leave the city's election districts more or less equal in population and registered voters. Under the plan, the number of registered voters and the population in each district could total no more than 4,000, he said.

The federal lawsuit was filed after the City Council redrew districts in June 1989. It had been scheduled for trial in December.

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