Harford Democrats termed fringe party, shut out of redistricting

Charter gives all the redistricting seats to Republicans

February 17, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

As Harford County begins its redistricting, a legal provision aimed at limiting the influence of small, single-issue parties is being applied to Democrats, who make up nearly half of the county's registered voters.

Democrats, who have seen their power steadily decline in recent county elections — and fielded few candidates last year — are now considered a fringe group under redistricting law. Tuesday night, the Republican-dominated County Council shut them out of the committee that will shape council districts for the next decade.

"Republicans here are so tea-partied up that they think they don't even have to include us," said Wendy Sawyer, chairwoman of the county's Democratic Central Committee. "This originally was a clear attempt to keep fringe parties from participating in redistricting. To suggest that we are a fringe party is outrageous."

But council members from both parties acknowledged that the exclusion of Democrats was due to a quirk in county law and that there were few options in shaping the redistricting committee. After nearly an hour of debate at Tuesday's session, the County Council voted 5-2 along party lines to seat three Republicans and reject two Democratic nominees.

According to a provision in the county charter, a party must poll at least 15 percent of total votes in the council election to be eligible for a seat on the committee that will recommend new boundaries for the six council districts. Democrats, who did not field candidates for council president or in three of the six council district races, accounted for less than 12 percent of the total votes.

"If you permit a party with less than 15 percent of the vote, there would an argument for seating members of the Green Party, the Libertarian Party … all could argue they would be disenfranchised," said Councilman Richard Slutzky, a Republican who represents Aberdeen.

Sawyer said the Democrats were caught off guard by the provision.

"Nobody realized the consequences of not fielding candidates," she said. "If we had, we would have challenged the charter as it is written at that time."

The central committee, with support from the Maryland Democratic Party, has threatened to file suit and demand representation on the committee, she said.

For about a half-hour prior to the session, about 20 Democrats gathered outside, some holding signs that read "MAKE REDISTRICTING FAIR."

"This is about the arrogance of power," said George Harrison of Bel Air, one of the Democrats whose nominations were rejected. "We are challenging an effort to basically disenfranchise half the county."

Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by less than 1,500 in a county with more than 125,000 voters. Parties around the state and nation view redistricting as a crucial process to align voters in a way that can benefit their candidates.

County Council President Billy Boniface said he expects a legal battle.

"The county has to do what is best for the citizens of the county. We took an oath to uphold the charter," he said. "I relish a court challenge."

Less than two decades ago Democrats held nearly every elected office in Harford County, but have lost substantial power. In last year's election, the party ceded the highest posts — including county executive — to Republicans without even fielding contenders. Democrats hold two council seats; the council president, elected at large, is a Republican.

The county charter provision on redistricting was not revised in 2000, when voters supported a referendum for election by district.

"I have serious questions about the way the charter was written," Republican Councilman James V. McMahan, who represents the Bel Air area, said before the meeting. "If we follow the charter, we have no choice but to appoint Republicans. … We really are between a rock and a hard place.

Democratic Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti of Havre de Grace said after lengthy review of the issue, she, too, has "serious concerns about the constitutionality of the charter."

Sawyer said she submitted the names of five Democrats to the council for consideration, but was told by the county attorney and by the council administrator that those names would not be considered. That correspondence was only recently shared with the council, several members said.

Lisanti said she would prefer the appointments to the redistricting committee were based on number of registered voters and not on votes cast. The issue has prompted many calls for an in-depth review of the county charter.

"Why are we determining the validity of this commission based on the outcome of an election, where voters often cross party lines?" she asked.

A previous version of this story did not accurately describe the origin of the Harford County charter. The county changed from a commissioner government in 1972, after voters approved a charter, written by an elected, five-member, bipartisan commission. The first county executive and council were elected at large in November 1972. In 2000, voters approved a charter referendum to elect six council members by district and the president at large. The charter includes a clause requiring a political party to poll 15 percent of the votes in the council election to be eligible for a seat on the redistricting commission.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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