This is the first of a three-part series on our state’s recent legislative redistricting.
In 2010, the state of Delaware was politically much like it is today, with Democrats in control of both the executive and legislative branches. Jack Markell was early in his first term as governor, while the Delaware General Assembly had Democrat control in both chambers: 14-7 in the 21-seat Senate, and 26-15 in the 41-seat House – this despite an electorate that, at the time, was 47% Democrat, 29% Republican, and 22% unaffiliated, with the remainder scattered among minor parties. Given that control, the Democrats pushed through maps that attempted to continue favoring them.
Although the maps created districts that were reasonably compact and contiguous, and divided the state up pretty much properly between counties in terms of number of seats per county, they also maintained the Democrats’ stronghold on the state. As of this writing, the House and Senate numbers are unchanged from those in 2010, and while the fortunes of the Democrats have ebbed and flowed – a special election in 2017 put the Democrats in jeopardy of losing their Senate majority, although they prevailed thanks to lots of campaign money – the electorate has barely moved in terms of registration: it’s now 48% Democrat, 28% Republican, and 22% unaffiliated, with the rest still enrolled in minor parties. If you assume the unaffiliated and minor party voters line up with the proportion established by the duopoly, Democrats outperform their 63% portion in the Senate by a half-seat and fall right in line with the proportions in the House. However, based on recent state voting results, the non-affiliated electorate tends to skew somewhat more Republican, so in essence the Democrats have “stolen” a couple seats.
And there are reasons why. But let’s begin with the basics: for this discussion, it’s worthy to note that districts in Delaware are numbered in a generally north-to-south fashion, although there is shuffling to some degree in New Castle County, the northernmost county where most of Delaware’s population lives. Over the years, a population shift southward toward the beaches of Sussex County has necessitated the breaking of this pattern: Senate District 6 and House Districts 14, 19, and 20 have all been transplanted from New Castle to Sussex. Otherwise, Sussex has the Senate districts from 18-21 and the House districts from 35-41. (In the new adopted map, Sussex will have another “out-of-place” district as House District 4 moves from New Castle to Sussex. District 4 is currently represented by Democrat Gerald Brady, who has already announced he would not seek re-election thanks in part to cancel culture, so his district was available to move.)
The shifting of districts entirely, writes Captain Obvious, means the population trends in the state have rendered the old districts obsolete. In Delaware there is an allowed 10% deviation in population within districts, which can be 5% higher or lower than average. Knowing that, it’s no wonder that those in charge have an opportunity to heist a few seats by making their safe districts smaller than the average and the opposition’s districts larger. In this case, Delaware’s political makeup and population shifts (which planners were obviously aware of in 2010) have conspired to really give short shrift to the minority Republicans.
To figure out the current state of play, I found some of the measures relied on a website called Dave’s Redistricting. (I’ve used it before to draw a fairer Congressional map in Maryland, where there is such a thing as a Congressional map. It was much better than the brutal gerrymandering that eventually passed.) As of the 2020 census, there are 6 current Senate districts and 9 in the House which exceed the 5% threshold for overpopulation; conversely the underpopulated districts number 9 in the Senate and 12 in the House. In a growing state like Delaware you would expect the opposite, but it’s less surprising when you find out the overpopulated districts are the Republican ones: 4 of 6 in the Senate and 5 of 9 in the House. Put another way, 57% of Republican senators and 33% of Republican House members represent overcrowded districts; the same is true for just 14% of Senate Democrats and 15% in the House.
In contrast – and not unexpectedly – all nine Senate districts voters (and others) are fleeing are controlled by the Democrats. Moreover, 10 of the 12 significantly underpopulated House districts are Democrat-controlled – so they are catering to a shrinking population. Again, no Republican Senator represents an underpopulated district but a whopping 64% of Democrat Senators represent a Senate district more than 5% below average population. In the House, only 13% of Republicans hail from a district severely short on population, but 38% of House Democrats do.
Knowing all that, there was no question that districts had to move, and the Sussex County beaches were going to gain representatives. The question would be how begrudging the Democrats would be in giving Sussex – the most Republican of the three counties – its due.
In part two, I’ll look at where the state is going.