The Cold Politics of Redistricting in DC -- Facts and Fiction by Rob Stephens

If, as some council members and political observers have said, redistricting is more about politics than the promotion of rational public policy goals (which I hope is not the case), the cold politics of voter turnout and community activism will be  more persuasive than the substantive arguments and the voices of a growing multi-racial coalition of residents from all income levels of Ward 6 and Kingman Park.

Neighbor Rob Stephens wrote a detailed article outlining the politicking that goes with redistricting and how this could/will effect our neighborhood. 

Several sources in City Hall have confirmed last week to a delegation from Rosedale and Kingman Park  that the Subcommittee on Redistricting is strongly leaning to redistrict parts or all of Rosedale and Hill East into Ward 7, that they will not redistrict Kingman Park back to Ward 6 and they are reluctant to redistrict parts of Ward 5 into Ward 7. At these meetings, some of the the subcommittee members repeatedly dismissed or downplayed a wide range of substantive arguments, history, statistics and testimony from more than a thousand residents of Rosedale, Hill East, Kingman Park and the Waterfront.  These arguments make a compelling case that "rational public policy" goals of respecting natural geographic boundaries and neighborhood cohesiveness would be undermined by imposing nearly all the burdens of redistricting on Ward 6, for the second time in a decade.    The three members of the Redistricting Subcommittee Council member Phil Mendelson (At-Large), Michael Brown (At-Large) and Jack Evans (Ward 2), especially Council Member Mendelson, have been repeatedly dismissive of the substantive rational public policy reasons and alternative redistricting options proposed by Ward 6 residents as well as redistricting concessions offered by Council Member Tommy Wells (Ward 6).

While the definition of "rational public policy," as contained in DC's Redistricting Statutes, is arguable, another key argument made by Redistricting Subcommittee members also deserves further scrutiny -- i.e. that the political costs of redistricting will be the same no matter which communities bear the burden of redistricting.  Some subcommittee members have made the point that they have no choice but to redistrict parts of Ward 6 or Ward 5 into Ward 7 and that all the targeted communities will be equally unhappy with being redistricted.  Another, unspoken, subtext of this argument is that the subcommittee would prefer to impose most of the burden of redistricting on only one Council member (i.e. Ward 6 Tommy Wells) rather than spread the burden or pain between several wards and hence annoy additional council members, notably Ward 5's Council member Harry Thomas.

This argument is is flawed on the following three counts:

First, far, far more people from all races and income levels from Ward 6 have spoken out and been active on redistricting than those in Ward 5.  The contrast between the response of Ward 5 and Ward 6 to redistricting rumors that emerged in late April is dramatic.  More than a thousand vocal and passionate Ward 6 residents attended more than three community meetings on redistricting, more than a thousand have signed petitions, sent emails or called the DC the Council opposing redistricting any part of Ward 6 into Wards 7 or 8, the neighborhood blogs and listservs are on fire, dozens if not more residents have gone to City Hall to lobby against redistricting and nearly all the ANCs in Capitol Hill have unanimously voted against redistricting. Not only has Ward 6 come together on this issue, but it has also actively supported the efforts of Kingman Park residents and their leaders to undo the mistake made in 2001 when it was redistricted from Ward 6 to Ward 7.    The testimony of dozens or Kingman Park residents and their elected leaders regarding the adverse effects of being in Ward 7 was repeatedly and unfairly discounted and dismissed by council members during the formal hearing on redistricting.  Over this weekend, Ward 6 activists called for a rally at Lincoln Park on this issue on Tuesday at 5:45 PM and the grassroots movement leaders are coming together to form a common strategy for the next stages.

What has been the response of Ward 5 and 7 to redistricting? Tepid to say the least. Last weeks redistricting meeting in Ward 5 drew less than 100 people while the meeting in Ward 7 drew less than 150.  Participants asked questions and in the case of some Ward 5, some voiced opposition to being redistricted to Ward 5. The most vocal person at the Ward 5 meeting who was attempting to get his constituents concerned about this issue was Council Member Thomas which stands in sharp contrast to the grassroots-led and lively Ward 6 meetings.  To our knowledge, there is no petition drive, no email campaign, no lobby days and no Ward 5 or 7 rallies.

Second, data from the Greater Greater Washington Redistricting Game indicated that more than 90% of the Rosedale and and 100% of Hill East residents who participated in the online game want to remain in Ward 6.   Of the 555 people from Ward 6 who participated in the online Redistricting Game, 87.4% want to remain in Ward 6, while only 33.1% of the 272 Ward 5 participants wanted to remain in Ward 5. This data can not be dismissed by simplistic arguments regarding digital divide as the people who participated in the game, whether in Ward 5 or Ward 6, are part of a similar cohort of people -- those who are most internet savy, those with more resources and those who are more likely to be active in their communities.  The data from the Redistricting Game does not need to be a statistically sound survey to make an important and notable point  -- i.e. that  two comparable cohort groups from Wards 5 and 6 have very different views on redistricting by nearly a 3:1 ratio which should send a message that resonates especially strong with at-large council members.

Third, and more importantly, there are dramatic differences in the voter turnout rates between the different communities.  A review of election voter turnout data from 2006, 2010 and 2011 (2008 was not included as voter turnout spiked city wide due to the Obama candidacy), shows that  Rosedale and Kingman Park have a consistently far greater voter turnout rates than the two Ward 5 communities located North of Benning Road (i.e. Precinct 79) and around the Arboretum area (i.e. Precinct 78).  In the April 2011 election, the turnout in Rosedale and Kingman Park was 2 to 3 times greater than that of the Benning Road and Arboretum areas.  In the 2010 Primary and 2006 general election, the difference in turnout between these four precincts in Ward 5 and 6 ranged from 7% to nearly 15%.  Voter turnout was even higher in Hill East and around East Capitol.  See table below for details.

If, as some council members and political observers have said, redistricting is more about politics than the promotion of rational public policy goals (which I hope is not the case), the cold politics of voter turnout and community activism will be  more persuasive than the substantive arguments and the voices of a growing multi-racial coalition of residents from all income levels of Ward 6 and Kingman Park.  Insinuations by some council members this is simply a case of overly active upper income, young and white Ward 6 residents crying over spilt milk belies the fact that some of the most passionate activism on this issue has come from older and lower income neighbors living in Rosedale and Kingman Park, two neighborhoods in Capitol Hill with the lowest income levels and the highest numbers of African Americans.

Redistricting, wherever it occurs in the US, unfortunately is more about politics than rational policy making.  However, when thinking about the politics of redistricting, DC council members would be wise to think more than simply about minimizing the number of council members who will be affected by redistricting and think more about how many likely voters and community activists will respond to their decision on redistricting. The cold political fact is that there are significant differences in the levels of community and political activism and involvement when one compares the Ward 5 and 6 communities that are in the sights of the redistricting subcommittee.  It is unlikely many voters in 2012 will decide how to vote solely on the basis of redistricting.  However, in close elections, the level and nature of community activism and voter turnout rates can play a crucial role, especially for at-large members.  Furthermore, transferring hundreds if not thousands of discontented former Ward 6 voters into Ward 7 would create new head aches and distractions for the Ward 7 Council member that would take years to iron out and that would distract her from addressing the many pressing concerns and issues facing her constituents, which are very different than those who live in Rosedale and Kingman Park .  Doing so would be a disservice to the residents and council members from Ward 6 as well as Ward 7 as well as take us off course from the One City Vision we are all working together for.  If politics are driving the redistricting process, I urge the members of the Redistricting Subcommittee to not impose the burden of redistricting largely on Ward 6 and to put first the wishes and interest of voters who consistently turn out at the polls over the predilections of their fellow council members.

April 2011 Election PRIMARY 2010 DC GENERAL 2006 Precinct (Area) Registered Voters Turnout Turnout Turnout
        78 (Arboretum) 3,286 4.63% 30.68% 22.22% 79 (Benning Rd) 2,442 2.70% 25.08% 15.07%
 80 (Kingman) 1,670 9.10% 37.70% 30.39% 81 (Rosedale) 5,881 7.53% 35.12% 29.39% 86 (E Capitol) 2,967 8.97% 39.28% 30.28% 87 (Hill East) 3,785 8.72% 37.92% 29.48%

Rob Stephens
Ward 6 Resident

No comments: