Harford Democrats ask court to decide redistricting

Democrats demand a say in redistricting decision

March 11, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

The Harford County Democratic Central Committee has filed a legal challenge in an attempt to stop an all-Republican redistricting commission from remaking the six County Council districts.

In a suit filed Thursday in the Circuit Court for Harford County, Democrats disputed a County Council decision that excludes them from the process that will determine voting districts for the next decade. They are asking the court to block any plan from the three-member redistricting commission.

"This is shutting more than 40 percent of the county's voters out of the process," said Wendy Sawyer, chairwoman of the Democratic Central Committee. "It is unconstitutional."

The suit contends that "failure to include two Democrats on the commission discriminates against voters who are registered Democrats and as a result, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution."

Acting on advice from the council attorney that they were following the county charter, the Republican-dominated County Council voted Feb. 15 to seat three Republicans on the commission that will use 2010 census figures to redraw districts. The three members have set a meeting schedule and will work to meet the Oct. 1 deadline for making recommendations. The council has ultimate authority to reset district lines.

"The commission has started its work and is moving forward," said Council President Billy Boniface, a Republican. "Until we are told differently by the court, we are ready to go."

Democrats' exclusion from the redistricting process "severely burdens the ability of voters who are registered Democrats to associate for the advancement of their beliefs and to elect candidates of their choice," according to the lawsuit.

Charles E. Kearney, attorney to the county council, said he doesn't foresee a delay, and expects the court to "be sensitive to the time constraints and resolve this issue early in the process."

The county charter says the commission should include two members of each political party that polled 15 percent of the total vote for council seats in the previous year's election. Democrats, who have seen their support decline in Harford County over the past decade, still account for 41 percent of registered voters. The party did not field candidates for council president or for three of the six council seats and polled less than 12 percent.

Sawyer contends the Democrats were caught off guard by the provision, which, she said, should have been changed when voters supported a referendum to elect council members by district instead of at large. Votes for the council president — who still runs at large and was unopposed this year — should have been considered separately, she said. If only council seats were considered, Democrats would have polled nearly 22 percent.

Boniface and Kearney disagree with that interpretation.

"In the opinion of our law department, our charter and our code, I am a member of the council and should be considered as such," Boniface said.

Kearney cited the charter, which says "the legislative branch consists of a council, composed of seven members."

The council typically appoints two Republicans and two Democrats from lists submitted by the respective parties. The council itself appoints the fifth member. When Boniface said he would submit a Democrat as the council's appointee, Sawyer rejected the offer. She wants at least two Democrats on the commission, she said.

"This is not about one Democrat," she said. "It is about getting the charter right."

Boniface has said repeatedly that he welcomes a court decision "as long as it doesn't take months."

"We are being blamed as obstructionists," he said. "I would love to hear the court's opinion. It would take this off our plates."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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