The Chestertown Council voted Monday to form a redistricting committee to redraw its voting districts by the next town election.
The vote comes on the heels a letter from the ACLU of Maryland and the Kent County NAACP that said the town’s voting wards were severely malapportioned and diluted black voting strength.
The last time Chestertown underwent redistricting was 1995.
Cerino said the voting districts have been a non-issue for him.
“Not a single one of my constituents has ever said anything to me about how this was unfair,” he said. “I think half the people in town have no idea which ward they live in, so it just wasn’t on my radar, this was something that was done long ago. I have no idea how often we’re supposed to redo this.”
“This wasn’t an intentional slight by me or the council,” Cerino continued. “I believe the bigger problem we have is not racial injustice of the wards, it’s getting friggin’ people to run for office.”
Cerino pointed out that three current councilmembers, including himself, ran unopposed.
“I don’t think it’s been a big burden on the town in terms of getting the representation that’s appropriate for the community,” he said. “I think we’re making a really big deal out of something that can be easily addressed by the council and rectified before the next election.”
Cerino acknowledged that the ward populations had become “out of whack” since 1995 and recommended that each council member select two people from their wards to staff a committee to study the issue, and also consider bringing in an outside consultant “to play with the lines.” Names for the committee members are due by the Feb. 18 council meeting.
“I don’t think this is an emergency,” he said. “We have almost two years to do this” before the next election to address population and ethnic representation.
Ward 1 Councilman David Foster said that Maryland was one of the “chief offenders” in the 1960s for violating the “one man, one vote” rule under the Fourteenth Amendment.
He said the town should take a look at the wards after every decennial census. He also said that having the election in odd years reduces voter turnout. He suggested having elections in the same year as Congressional elections, which was a recommendation in the letter from the ACLU.
The ACLU letter came with recommended ward maps that would increase black voter strength in Ward 3 to 43 percent.
“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.”
The ACLU found that most of Chestertown’s black population was split between Wards 3 and 4, causing a dilution of black voting strength.
Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver, the council’s only black member, contended that the ACLU had overreached in its recommendations on race–but he agreed the towns four wards needed to be reapportioned.
“All politics is local, I think in this particular instance the ACLU has overreached in its assumption that there needs to be this black voting block in Chestertown,” he said. “I agree with the opportunity to have parity in the wards in terms of [population]. I’m not on board with this thing about having this voting block that is dedicated to trying to elect an African American per se.”
Cerino said he tried to explain to the ACLU that they were trying “to gerrymander a ward that is already represented by an African American.”