Harford Democrats made the rules, now they have to play by them

Our view: Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for being shut out of the redrawing of council district lines

February 17, 2011

Harford County Democrats are complaining because they have been shut out from the panel that will draw County Council district lines using new census data, an exercise they fear will allow Republicans to gerrymander them into oblivion. But the situation is their own fault.

A provision of the charter designed to keep small political parties from unduly influencing the process says that to get a seat on the committee, a party must receive at least 15 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent council election. Democrats didn't bother to put up candidates for council president or in three of the six district races, so they didn't meet that threshold.

Wendy Sawyer, the chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee, says the consequences of the charter provision caught them by surprise, but this is not some obscure codicil from the county's distant past, or some nefarious Republican trick. It's something that was put in place by the bipartisan commission that developed the charter in the 1970s and was not revised when election-by-district was approved by voters in 2000.

The Democrats now plan to take their case to court. They have contended that the charter provision is being misapplied, but how they come to that conclusion is hard to figure.

The section in question reads: "Whenever district boundaries are to be established or re-established, the Council shall appoint, not later than February 15 of the year prior to the year in which redistricting is to be effective, a commission on redistricting, composed of two members from each political party chosen from a list of five names submitted by the Central Committee of each political party which polled at least fifteen percent of the total vote cast for all candidates for the Council in the immediately preceding regular election."

Democrats argue that the calculation should only count the votes for the six council members who are elected by district, and not votes for council president. But such a distinction is not made in the text of the charter. The section in which the word "council" is defined refers to it as a legislative body of seven members.

Democrats have also complained that the provision is unconstitutional. If so, then it's also unconstitutional for them to exclude the Green Party or the Libertarian Party or any other group that didn't meet the 15 percent threshold. The Democrats insist their case is different because there are 62,000 registered Democrats in Harford County, 41 percent of the total and just 1,500 fewer than the number of Republicans.

But failing to seat Democrats on the redistricting panel doesn't mean those voters are disenfranchised in the process. For one thing, they may be registered Democrats, but they are apparently perfectly willing to vote for and be represented by Republicans. For another, the redistricting panel simply presents a recommendation to the council for its consideration, and Democrats still hold two seats.

Rather than challenging the rules, how about fielding candidates? Just putting names on the ballot without spending another dime on campaigning would have gotten them to 15 percent. If Harford Democrats are the major party they insist they are, they need to act like it, and that means giving voters a choice at the ballot box.

That said, Republicans now bear responsibility in the redistricting process to act in the interests of the community and not solely in the interests of their party. They should remember what happened to Democrats in the State House when they went to any lengths possible to draw legislative district lines to their advantage after the 2000 Census. Republicans challenged the plan in court and won, leading to new maps drawn by judges. Republicans may have the power to draw the district lines in Harford County, but that power is not absolute.

Perhaps the most sensible thing that has been said about the controversy came from Roy Whiteley, a Harford County property tax activist, who sent an e-mail to the council Wednesday night wondering why politics should have anything to do with redistricting in the first place. The goal, he said, should be simply to ensure "a fair and equal distribution based on the existing population within a relatively closely related and homogeneous geographic area," a result that could best be achieved through a nonpartisan process. If Democrats want to make a stink about Harford County redistricting, that's the goal they should pursue.

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