An argument for Question P


Districts: Two consultants dispute the claim that reconfiguring the City Council would dilute minority voting power.

October 17, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

SO, CITY Council President Sheila Dixon and Mayor Martin O'Malley think changing the configuration of the council from six three-member districts to 14 single-member ones would result in less minority representation?

That's one of the points they made this month in opposing Question P, the Nov. 5 ballot initiative being pushed by a coalition of labor and activist groups to improve accountability and cut costs by shrinking the size of the body.

But that's not what Karl Aro and Nathaniel Persily say.

"It's not a necessary outcome per se," Aro said of a loss of minority representation. "It depends on how they draw the districts."

Aro is executive director of the Maryland Department of Legislative Services; Persily is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania law school and an expert on electoral and constitutional law.

The two men served as special consultants to the Court of Appeals, which redrew the state's legislative boundaries after throwing out the plan of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

For the record, voters nominated a legislative delegation in last month's Democratic primary that was 71 percent African-American in a city that is 64 percent black. Currently, 13 of the 19 council members, including Dixon, who is elected at large, are African-American.

"There is no reason to think that with single-member districts, you couldn't achieve the exact same thing," said Persily. "You can easily ensure under either plan that African-Americans will be able to elect their candidates of choice. You have to be conscious of the demographics of the districts you are drawing."

Both men caution that there is no guarantee how many blacks would be elected under either plan, and point out that federal voting law doesn't ensure proportionality but prohibits the dilution of minority voting strength.

But Persily said that it may be easier to draw boundaries that are likely to elect minorities with 14 districts than with six.

"The more districts you have to play with, the greater your ability to predict which [race] will have the dominant view in that district," he said.

Persily noted that the argument by Dixon and O'Malley that minority representation would be more likely under multimember districts goes against the historical grain.

"The irony here is that usually multimember districts have been challenged as civil rights violations," he said. "It's usually been the case that the NAACP and other groups have challenged multimember districts to be broken up into single-member districts. Throughout the South, there's almost zero multimember City Council districts."

The whole issue of whether multimember or single-member districts are better for minority representation was usually raised in jurisdictions with percentages of minority populations that were significant but less than 50 percent, Persily said. It rarely came up in jurisdictions, like Baltimore, where blacks composed a significant majority of the population.

Indeed, one of the key Supreme Court cases involving the federal Voting Rights Act was the 1986 Thornburg vs. Ginges decision, in which the court threw out multimember districts in a North Carolina state legislative redistricting plan.

More than a decade and a half later, the case continues to reverberate. Currently, the federal government is suing Charleston County, S.C., claiming its at-large election of council candidates - essentially, one multimember district - discriminates against blacks.

With 651,154 residents in Baltimore, dividing the city into 14 districts would result in about 46,000 people per district, compared with about 108,000 under the current six-district system.

(In the redistricting after the 1990 census, the six councilmanic districts had between 120,000 and 125,000 people. Each of the six districts lost population in the last decade, but not equally. Currently, the districts range in size from 117,778 in the 3rd District in Northeast to 97,764 in the 6th District in South and Southwest, meaning there will have to be some adjustments to the boundaries even if the ballot initiative fails.)

The claim by Dixon, O'Malley and other opponents of Question P - that 14 single-member districts would lead to excessive parochialism - strikes Persily as more credible than the argument that it would reduce minority representation. "That I think has resonance," he said. "There are cities in the South where there's been criticism that single-member districts lead to independent fiefdoms."

Persily mentions another likely effect that passage of Question P would have - one that is not mentioned by opponents of the initiative.

With four fewer members to be elected and the city carved into several more pieces, Persily says single-member districts with fewer overall members would result in more incumbents laying claim to the same territory.

"The redistricting fights will be more pronounced," he said.

Could that be the real reason those in power are opposed to Question P?

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.