With the 2020 census around the corner, Chestertown is closing in on a quarter-century since it last reapportioned its four voting districts.
State law gives no redistricting guidance to municipalities; so local jurisdictions like Chestertown are governed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, court rulings and the U.S. Constitution.
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment mandates that voting districts in a state or local jurisdiction be equal in population to the extent possible. But current voter registration rolls in Chestertown may indicate that the wards vary in population — from the smallest to the largest — by more than 10 percent. Deviations that exceed 10 percent in local jurisdictions are generally considered “constitutionally suspect” unless there is a compelling reason.
As of the 2019 election for Wards 2 and 4, the most current census data available puts the town’s population at 5,054, and the tally of registered voters shows increases in each ward since the town last redrew its districts in 1995, most notably in Ward 3.
Ward 1 – 760
Ward 2 – 611
Ward 3 – 1,236
Ward 4 – 676
Chestertown officials could not provide census data by ward for this story. But if the wards were equally apportioned within the 10 percent range, each ward should have roughly 1,250 residents. This means Ward 3 is hovering at or near 100 percent voter registration.
Chestertown’s 1995 redistricting and apportionment ordinance recognized that over two decades had passed since the previous reapportionment and the need to increase population and voter registration in Ward 2, historically lower than the other wards.
In attempting to balance the voter rolls and population in each ward, the Ward Apportionment Study Committee, appointed in 1993, drew new boundaries that moved parts of Wards 1, 3 and 4 into Ward 2. See proposed map changes from March of 1995.
The final tally for the four wards when the new map was adopted in 1995:
Ward 1 population 917, with 668 registered voters
Ward 2 population 1,058, with 449 registered voters
Ward 3 population 1,167, with 573 registered voters
Ward 4 population 1,327 (includes 300 college students) with 473 registered voters.
The reapportionment committee put the town’s population at 4,169, and the adopted map anticipated growth in Wards 1, 3 and 4 — and allowed for the expansion of Ward 2 should annexation occur in the future. See the adopted map.
The adopted committee report used the most current voter registration rolls from the Kent County Board of Elections and the most current census data from the Maryland Department of Planning. The committee’s final report said, “care was taken to preserve the minority voter balance in each ward.”
Though Maryland municipalities, like in all states, must establish their own redistricting plans that comply with the VRA and the Constitution, there is no requirement in Chestertown’s charter that mandates redistricting after a census. The Charter simply states:
“It shall be the duty of the Mayor and Council, by Ordinance, to divide the Town into four (4) wards and apportion the Council in such manner for election purposes so as to reflect population and voter equality.”
There are 157 municipalities in Maryland and Chestertown is one of 30 that has voting districts to elect council members, according to the Maryland Municipal League. Of the 30 municipalities still using voting districts, six require a decennial census; Chestertown is not one of them.
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Letters to Editor
Bill Arrowood says
A very succinct statement of facts of the inequities of our local voting districts, something I have been trying to get traction on every election cycle for years.
Not addressed is that the demographics of certain wards are somewhat carved out and have the appearance of being very specific, something that allegedly looks like a lot like old fashioned gerrymandering. (Historically, Ward 3 contains the majority of the African American population of the town and at the time of drawing of the map, also included the most of the subsidized and lower income communities).
Further having areas like Foxley Manor in the downtown/business Ward 2 are out of place. Foxley Manor resident issues have more in common and are geographically closer to its neighbors on the other side of the woods, Washington Park and Coventry Farms, (which didn’t exist last time the Ward Maps were drawn), than with High Street and Cannon Street. One can only supposed this was done to balance the ledgers, but why wouldn’t Ward 2 include Kent Crossing or Upper High Street, which is closer and includes mixed residential and business, like the rest of the Ward.
The dividing of Water and Queen Streets looks like a separation of the wealthiest properties into the more, (at the time), affluent Ward 1, also feels like it had more to do with who lives where than simple straight lines on a map. (with some exception, Water/Front Street south of High was not as gentrified as it stands today).
The annexation of the new Dixon Property and its proposed infill of workforce residential will also add to the imbalance in the wards and should be addressed in advance of their completion. (This residential boom was something the Town anticipated on the Cross Street Extension 30 odd years ago that has never materialized, but is actively happening now on Scheeler Road)
I do not suggest that this map was drawn 30 years ago with any malice or malfeasance, I do however argue that it is well passed time for its update and that geography and like zoning should be a consideration as well as population balance.
I would go so far as to suggest an amendment to the Town Charter to allow for an At-Large council seat for Chestertown ‘residents’ that are considered Chestertownians but not officially inside the legal boundaries. Parts of Morgnec Road and Quaker Neck Road and Crestview are surrounded by the boarders of town, but not a part of the Town proper, or areas like Country Club Estates represent significant populations who deserve a level of engagement.
This seat, could be restricted for voting on matters of budgeting and finance, as those residents are not subject to Town Real Estate Tax, but it would increase the overall responsibility that the Town of Chestertown and its Council has to all its ‘residents’ and offer an opportunity for broader inclusion to its impacted community. I would also consider, as the Board of Education has done effectively, consider a student seat for a Washington College student. As the college grows, (now over 1,300 in enrollment), what happens at the college and its students are a major factor in what happens to and in the town. Again, even if this was a not fiscal voting position, offering a seat at the table to a student/staff would make strides in increasing the ‘town and gown’ relations.
Or that as Chestertown is only a handful of municipalities of its size that seats are not At-Large, perhaps its time to consider that as well, and dispel any inequities of population and demographics and have each council member assigned a basic quadrant for reports, which if not bound by voting poles can be divided simply and evenly by zoning and property.
This is not an easy issue to fix with a sharpie and a map, (well technically, given that boarders should be based on straight forward math and zoning, maybe it is); but it certainly is one that deserves attention and could be resolved with equity and common sense. I hope that this article shines a light on this and the Mayor & Council will find time to address this before the town’s next election cycle.