SALISBURY — Election redistricting was delayed in Salisbury this week after an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) email questioning redistricting proposals by Mayor Jim Ireton reached the City Council. Because it arrived on the morning of a meeting, the council decided to postpone discussion to give the city attorney time to review the message.
The issue has been generating controversy since preliminary work on redistricting began last fall.
“This is going to end up in court,” said Councilwoman Laura Mitchell.
In the letter the council received Monday, written by Deborah Jeon of the Maryland ACLU and Christopher Brown of the law firm Brown, Goldstein and Levy, the ACLU of Maryland and the Wicomico County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) assert that the city has been sending them “crisscrossing and sometimes contradictory communications” regarding redistricting plans. So far, Ireton has presented three different proposals for council consideration.
However, the ACLU has found fault with each and counter proposed three plans of their own.
“To achieve racial fairness, the redistricting plan adopted by the City should-to the greatest extent possible-be one that reflects the general diversity of the City’s populace and gives residents opportunities to elect their chosen candidates roughly proportionate to their numbers in the population,” the letter reads.
In the letter, Jeon and Brown point out that Salisbury’s minority population has risen to equal 48.2 percent of the total population. As such, election districts need to be crafted in a way that accurately reflects that change; two of the proposals submitted by the Maryland ACLU call for five voting districts while the third aims for seven districts, much more than the two currently in place.
The ACLU also endorses single-member voting districts over multi-member or at-large seats.
“It is well established that at-large election systems and multi-member districts ‘tend to minimize the voting strength of minority groups by permitting the political majority to elect all representatives of the district,’” noted the letter, which cited Rogers v. Lodge, 1982.
Other issues tackled by the ACLU proposals include protecting the incumbency of council members who live in the same neighborhood. Council President Terry Cohen and Council members Tim Spies and Deborah Cohen all live within a few blocks of each other in town. Under the current two district set-up, all three are eligible for election. However, with one of Ireton’s three proposals, their proximity would mean that they’re all running for the same council seat.
It should be noted that Ireton’s other two proposals would allow all three to run, either through the continuation of the two district system or with the addition of at-large seats.
The ACLU takes this into account and all three of their plans avoid lumping current councilmembers into the same district.
Finally, the letter advises against staggering elections as it can “exacerbate the dilutive effect of an at-large system.” The city’s current, two district system, where one district is minority-majority and the other encompasses the rest of the council, is especially hurt by staggered elections, argued Jeon and Brown, because minority voters are able to vote less often for their candidates.
The council has set a May 1 deadline to set the new redistricting.