Dominique Maria Bonessi/WAMU/DCist
The Prince George's County Council will hear input from the public Tuesday night on the county's proposed redistricting plan.
Dominique Maria Bonessi/WAMU/DCist
The process for redistricting Prince George's County's nine council districts after the decennial census tends to be a snooze-fest. But the plan proposed this year is getting pushback from some lawmakers and community activists, who say it favors wealthier exurban areas of the county outside the Beltway and could split the county's growing Latino voters.
The disagreements could be on display during a public hearing in the county council on Tuesday on the proposed redistricting plan, which a three-member redistricting commission says aligns with the legal requirements laid out by federal, state and local laws. Activists, though, say the plan instead perpetuates the political and economic disenfranchisement of residents living in communities inside the Beltway.
Currently, only two of the council's nine districts lie entirely within the Beltway, while the other seven are partially or entirely outside of it. The wealthier outer districts hold significantly more sway on the council, according to activists. They say they would like to see districts redrawn to balance not only population but also income, shifting boundaries to incorporate both lower- and higher-income populations.
Even in the heavily majority-Democratic county, redistricting has real political implications. District lines can determine which districts hold the most power on the council, affecting everything from policy priorities to where state and local funding goes.
The Prince George's County's Redistricting Commission's proposed 2021 map.
A delayed census and short timeline
A three-member redistricting commission is tasked with creating the districts based on the 2020 census numbers. Their proposed plan is what is known as a "least-change" plan, based on the previous census in 2010, with only slight adjustments to some districts' boundaries based on the new 2020 census data.
The average population is about 107,000 people per district in Prince George's County. Four districts have populations below that average, while five are above it. While the two urban districts entirely inside the Beltway have populations that are below the average, they have the highest median population densities per square mile in the county, according to the 2019 American Communities Survey. The two districts with populations above the average are located along Metro lines and include the towns of Laurel, Beltsville, College Park, and New Carrollton.
The commission members detailed the parameters for drawing the proposed districts in their 52-page report, which was released and presented to the county council earlier this month. The parameters included ensuring boundaries that are contiguous, avoiding splitting up neighborhoods, and taking into account community interests that connect each district.
"This is about providing one person, one vote. I believe that we have accomplished that," David Harrington, one of the commission members and the president and CEO of the county's chamber of commerce, told council members earlier this month. "Certainly there may be other perspectives, but I would say we all worked for the benefit of this county."
The commission members say they took a conservative approach in part because when they started the process in March, they did not yet have the 2020 census numbers due to pandemic delays, which left them working with 2010 census data. In addition, County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said that 2010 data was an undercount and cost the county an estimated $363 million in federal funds.
"We were running in the blind with numbers we didn't have," James Robinson, chair of the redistricting commission, told councilmembers. Robinson defended the proposal, saying that the software used by the commission to draw the boundaries helped so that when the 2020 data came in, it was straightforward to update with the correct information.
Early last month, the commission finally received the full 2020 census data, which registered a total population of more than 967,000 residents, a 12% increase over 2010.
"When we got the true numbers it was really easy for us — although we had only two weeks and a day left — to take those numbers and do something with them because of the advantages we had with the software," Robinson said.
Given the compressed timeline, the commission noted in their report that a plan based heavily on the previous map is "least disruptive to the incumbents, voters, and the electoral system. However, benefits of a least-change plan are only as great as the desirability of the existing plan. If an existing plan is viewed as defective or undesirable for some reason, then the least-change plan replicates those undesirable features."
Varying reaction from lawmakers
It's unclear whether lawmakers will push for substantial changes before voting on the plan. Councilmembers like Todd Turner (D-District 4), who represents portions of Bowie and Greenbelt, lauded the commission for completing the proposed plan by Sept. 1 and under challenging conditions. Turner was on the council in 2011 when the county redrew districts following the release of the 2010 census data. He told commission members that the 2011 plan was a huge change for the county, and that the council could easily make changes to the current proposed plan.
Councilmember Danielle Glaros (D-District 3), who represents College Park and New Carrollton, also commended the commission, noting that it managed to come up with a plan "in the worst possible times in this country."
"In the midst of a pandemic, at a time when the White House was saying things that were problematic, I think it's important to stop there and thank all the folks who joined us in making this happen," Glaros said.
Council Vice Chair Deni Taveras (D-District 2), who represents Hyattsville and Mount Rainier, agreed with the sentiments of her colleagues, but added that she was concerned about representation for Latinos in her district.
"Why can we not have a majority-minority district that is Latino?" Taveras, the only Afro-Latina on the council whose term ends next year, told DCist/WAMU. "I feel blessed that I have the opportunity to serve on this council, but the representation of somebody like me or another Latino after me is not guaranteed."
According to 2020 census data, the Hispanic/Latino population in the county grew from 14.9% of the overall population in 2010 to more than a fifth in 2020. While the Hispanic population is concentrated mainly in District 2, where it represents 54% of the population, there are also significant communities in nearby districts 3 and 5 that combined could make for a majority Latino district.
Lack of representation
Representation of Latinos on the council is also one of the concerns of advocates who argue that the federal Voting Rights Act requires that districts not be drawn in ways that limit representation for people of color and non-English speakers.
"In practice, you can't really draw a majority citizen voting age population in a district where the majority of citizens over the age of 18 are Latino in the county, just because of the way populations are distributed and the fact that you've got a lot of neighborhoods that don't have a majority ethnic group or race," said D.W. Rowlands, an advocate from College Park who wrote about the county's redistricting issues in Greater Greater Washington, in an interview with DCist/WAMU.
Another concern Rowlands has with the current proposal is that it continues to concentrate the county's lowest-income residents in certain districts. For example, District 7 has the lowest median income in the county, roughly $60,000, and District 2 has the second-lowest median income at roughly $65,000, according to the 2019 American Communities Survey. Rowland argues that lower income correlates to issues like an increased crime rate and less funding for schools in those districts.
"This is a real major divide in the county," Rowland said. She added that the council's parameters to redraw districts by keeping communities of interest together is connected to things like tax policy and what kind of social services are offered in the county and where they are located. "The fact that the districts are drawn in a way that under represents them is a concern because it means the voices won't be heard as much."
Bradley Heard, a lawyer and advocate from Capitol Heights, has an alternative plan he says would allow lower-income, inner-Beltway portions of the county to have better representation on the council and distribute the population of the county more equitably than the current proposal. His proposed map would extend several districts from the D.C. border east toward the central part of the county. Heard used open source software to draw his own alternative map of what he thinks the county's districts should look like.
Bradley Heard, a community advocate from Capitol Heights, drew an alternative map that, he says, would make redistricting more equitable.
"I think it's the only way the council is going to be motivated to reconsider this approach," Bradley told DCist/WAMU. "Redistricting traditionally is just sort of shrouded in mystery and that's why they're able to do it in a cloistered fashion."
Bradley points out that when the redistricting commission had their two public hearings back in July, fewer than 10 people came to speak — and some residents said they didn't want to provide comment, but rather understand what the redistricting proposal was going to look like.
Rowland and Bradley say they're concerned that lack of residents' input on redistricting could keep the status quo on the council and perpetuate issues facing low-income communities. "If the council doesn't hear substantial pressure, I think they won't change," Rowland said.
Once the public hearing concludes Tuesday, the council has until Nov. 30 to vote on any changes to the proposal. If no changes are made, the proposal becomes law.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.