Poor Turnout For County Redistricting Hearings

SNOW HILL — A series of recent public hearings on the upcoming re-districting of Worcester County was met with “disappointing turnout,” according to the County Commissioners.
With little input and tied by strict state guidelines, the commissioners will not likely make any major changes to the proposed new district maps.
“I was very, very, very disappointed with the turnout,” said Commission President Bud Church this week. “One meeting in Pocomoke we had one person. In Snow Hill, I think they had two people. And in Berlin we probably had six or seven.”
With less than a dozen residents taking part across all three public hearings last week, Church said that there was “very little input” from the public to help the commissioners moving forward with re-districting. On topics such as polling availability this is especially disappointing, he furthered, because the changes to districts currently leave many communities subject to long drives to reach a polling place.
Church did credit the town of Berlin for speaking up about polling at one of the hearings and promised that the commission will take the comments seriously. The Berlin Town Council voted last month not to support the re-districting unless another polling place was provided for the town, which will be split between three districts on the new map.
Commissioner Judy Boggs also expressed disappointment that more residents did not attend the hearings.
“It just doesn’t seem to be a sexy issue to people. It’s not something that people say, ‘oh boy, I better see what’s going on,’” she said.
That’s a dangerous attitude, according to Boggs. She pointed to the loss in voter turnout that her own Ocean Pines district saw last year when it changed its polling place.
“Ocean Pines is the voting star of the county and we may be the voting star of the state,” she said. “However, when they moved the polling place from the fire department to the community church, it went down from 76 percent to, I believe, 65 percent.”
With so many variations from re-districting, if the public is not paying attention, Boggs is afraid that such a hit to voter turnout could be countywide in the next election. If people have been going to the same polling place for years, but find out they can’t anymore because they are in a new district, Boggs doubted most would be willing to track down their new polling place the same day as the election.
Even had public feedback been extensive, Boggs admitted that the commissioners’ hands are relatively tied when it comes to changing the district maps. The new map has to meet a list of set criteria including a minority-majority district, a deviation of no more than 10 percent between population density in any two districts and a deviation of no more than 5 percent between any district’s population and the average population of 7,364.
“I have concerns for the people,” said Boggs. “There was nothing else that the county could do, given the state guidelines.”
In particular, Boggs questioned the state’s need for a minority-majority district, arguing that it required too much contortion to fit on the map and, most importantly, that it was unnecessary in Worcester.
“I am really proud that this county doesn’t have pockets of minorities. The minorities in this county live wherever they choose,” she said.
That general integration with the population makes it a task to draw the maps in a way so that one of the seven districts has a higher minority than white population, said Boggs.
“But I think it’s a good thing that minorities in Worcester County can live and do live anywhere they want in the county,” she said. “I think that’s the goal that everybody wants to reach. And we’ve done it. But we still have this minority-majority district and it comes at a cost to everyone in the county.”
With the minority district mandated by the court system, the county only really has the ability to shift around the lines slightly.
“You can move a street here and there,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
The county likely will tweak the map a little before voting to finalize it in September. In particular, Shockley said that Berlin could see an adjustment, as that was something that was requested during the Berlin-based public hearing. Like the other commissioners, Shockley is most worried about addressing polling availability and getting many residents used to their new districts.
Besides polling issues, the re-districting means that some commissioners will lose traditional campaign areas to other districts and will have to reach out to entirely new constituents in the next election. Shockley will see some of the biggest shifts in his western district with the loss of Stockton and the absorption of a slice of Berlin.
“It’s been 12 years since those people have seen me,” he said of his newly added portion of Berlin.
The commissioners will hold another public hearing on Sept. 17 where they will vote on adoption of a re-districted map.