Do We Really Have to Redistrict?
As you may have realized, people in Ward 6—especially those east of 17th Street SE, which looks like the proposed dividing line—really, really do not want to be redistricted into another ward. So much so, in fact, that a number of them wondered why D.C. couldn’t just buck the constitutional principle of one man, one vote and let the ward boundaries stay where they are, leaving less than the required percentage of people in Wards 7 and 8. To support their argument, Ward 6 completists cite a provision of the D.C. Code mandating equalization of ward populations except where necessary to promote "a rational public policy, including…respect for the political geography of the District, the natural geography of the District, neighborhood cohesiveness, or the development of compact and contiguous districts.”
Natural geography? Neighborhood cohesiveness? That’s what Tommy Wells is talking about! Can’t we just dispense with all this heartache and claim an exception?
Well, who knows how a judge would rule, but signs point to no. Back in 2003, the D.C. Court of Appeals rejected arguments from the Civic Associations of Chevy Chase and Kingman Park, which had been moved across Rock Creek Park and the Anacostia River respectively, that they ought to be moved back.
Here’s what the court had to say about the natural boundary issue:
As an initial matter, we note that the Election Act does not mandate that respect for natural boundaries be a prevailing concern in redistricting, but rather it is simply a factor that can be used to justify a greater deviation from equal population of wards. The fact that Wards 3 and 4 now traverse Rock Creek Park and Wards 6 and 7 now traverse the Anacostia River does not render them noncompact or noncontiguous.
They also disagreed with Kingman Park’s argument that the redistricting was discriminatory because it split off an African American section of Ward 6 into Ward 7, thereby diluting black voting power (as someone pointed out at a recent meeting, the highest concentrations of African Americans in Ward 6 are close to the river, so absorbing them into Wards 7 or 8 would make Ward 6 less diverse). The judges reasoned that black people in Kingman Park hadn’t affirmatively demonstrated that they voted together anyway, so the political discrimination argument didn’t hold water.
The civic associations didn’t make arguments based on the more nebulous concept of “neighborhood cohesiveness.” Redistricting committee members Phil Mendelson and Michael Brown point out that all redistricting decisions will rupture neighborhoods—Fort Lincoln and the Arboretum want to stay in Ward 5 just as much as Southwest and Hill East want to stay in Ward 6 (sentiments that, unfortunately, too often get expressed through the “otherness” of Wards 7 and 8).
If the Council elected to not equalize the wards on the grounds of “neighborhood cohesiveness,” and someone sued, would the decision hold up in court? My hunch is that a judge would hold equal representation over Ward 6’s feeling of togetherness, no matter how much progress schools have made and how much effort Capitol Hillites have poured into Hill East. And I doubt the Council is willing to take that risk.