The ACLU of Maryland and the NAACP of Kent County have notified the Town of Chestertown to correct its malapportioned voting districts and create a ward with a “substantial plurality” of black voters.
“The existing four-ward election system in Chestertown is severely malapportioned, and also unfairly dilutes black voting strength,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, in a letter to Mayor Chris Cerino on Jan. 17.“It is imperative that the problems of Chestertown’s election system be corrected in advance of the next election.”
Chestertown last apportioned its districts in 1995–and since then the population of Ward 3 has swelled to twice that of Ward 1.
“Thus giving individual voters of Ward 1 a disproportionate voice in local elections, and Ward 3 voters proportionately less,” Jeon said.
The Supreme Court has interpreted the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to require voting districts be equal in population to the extent possible. Any deviation between the smallest and the largest district in a jurisdiction is “constitutionally suspect” if it exceeds 10 percent.
“Since the current election plan is dated 1995, it appears that the reason for this malapportionment may be that the Town has failed to redistrict periodically to keep pace with its legal and constitutional obligations,” Jeon said. “As a result, Chestertown’s current system violates the constitutional principle of one-person, one-vote.”
The letter from the ACLU follows a story in the Spy on Dec. 11 that reported Ward 3 had twice the number of registered voters than Ward 2.
The Spy sought confirmation from the ACLU on the actual population of the wards because town officials could not provide the data.
The ACLU confirmed on Jan. 4 that the wards were malapportioned based on current census data for each ward. (See Figure 1)
The population was 70 percent more than average in Ward 3 and 26 percent below average in Ward 1, an overall deviation of 96 percent, “a variation that is constitutionally unacceptable,” Jeon said.
Most recent census data puts Chestertown’s population at 5,281.
The ACLU found that most of Chestertown’s black population was split between Wards 3 and 4, causing a dilution of black voters.
Wards 3 and 4 have the largest black populations, 35 and 25 percent respectively. Jeon said it was possible to redraw the four wards to include a ward with a larger population of voting age blacks–and also achieve proportional representation.
“It is possible to rectify the problems of malapportionment and racial fairness at the same time,” she said.
An ACLU demographer drew a draft map that accomplishes both and brings the population deviation to less than five percent. The map also keeps current incumbents in their districts. (See Figures 2 & 3)
The ACLU also recommended that town elections be held on the same schedule as state or federal elections to increase voter turnout.
When asked for comment, Mayor Chris Cerino said he may comment on the issue at the Jan. 27 council meeting.
Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said, “I am sure, together with my colleagues, we will make every effort to ensure a fair and equitable playing field for all the voters in Chestertown.”