Last month, U.S. Census data dropped, sparking discussions nationwide around gerrymandering, the dominant political party’s redrawing of state lines to suit political interests. The data drop also invited a talk about D.C.’s exclusion in this process at the federal level and ward-level redistricting. In the District, this once-in-ten-years political undertaking involves dividing up residents into eight wards of roughly the same population (86,193 residents, plus or minus 5 percent). The rebalancing comes after a five-month delay due to the pandemic-affected census count timeline. Redistricting is designed to ensure fair and equal representation and correct for discrepancies in voting power for residents of much more populous wards (say, Ward 6) to smaller wards (looking at you, 7 and 8) based on 2020 census numbers. Before drafting their redistricting bill for wards, members of the Committee of the Whole’s Subcommittee on Redistricting will also take into account residents’ input at a series of hearings from today until late October. The time to redraw lines draws close: The second public hearing on redistricting started streaming live at 11 a.m. We’ll be covering the whole thing on Twitter.
What Should Folks Look Out For in the Hearing Today?
- An Overview of the Process
The subcommittee (made up of At-Large Councilmembers Elissa Silverman, Anita Bonds, and Christina Henderson, appointed by Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson) and other city officials delved into the redistricting process and how residents can get involved. One of the most popular ways so far: the D.C. redistricting online mapping tool, which launched Sept. 17 to give residents a chance to visualize and experiment with boundaries. Office of Planning online training sessions on the mapping tool site are available through Oct. 8 for any folks who want to learn the mapping ropes.
While OP is attempting to close tech knowledge gaps through these trainings, there are other access issues to address. For one, not all residents have Wi-Fi access. The subcommittee hopes to work out a physical version of the District map so folks with little or no internet access can draw their reimagined maps by hand (though the result could be messy on paper), according to a staff member from Silverman’s office. In-person and outdoor events may also be a good way to engage residents who have either a language or Internet access barrier, Amanda Farnan, communications director for Henderson, tells City Paper.
Though councilmembers will go into detail at the hearing, what we know about the process is that ward-specific community engagement is key. After today’s hearing, expect more ward-level Zoom and in-person meetings through October before the subcommittee drafts a redistricting bill in mid-November. The Council will hold two votes on the bill in December. (You can find the step-by-step timeline on Silverman’s website here.)
“After it’s all said and done, then of course, it becomes less of an advocacy, but more of an education aspect,” Farnan tells City Paper. “We’re telling people their new ward if they are in a new ward, telling people new lines, sharing maps, all of that.”
After the subcommittee determines ward lines in December, ANC lines are next. (Contrary to what many believe, ward and ANC lines are not drawn simultaneously, Silverman tells City Paper.) Councilmembers, their staff, and ANC commissioners are tasked with leading outreach through meetings, flyers, social media, and other forms of communication to make redistricting as accessible and participatory as possible. ANC task forces—squads that ANC members appoint (at-large councilmembers get to appoint one person on this task force) to make recommendations in February for ANC boundaries—submit maps to the Council for proposed neighborhood lines. Their recommendations lead the way for the subcommittee draft of an ANC redistricting bill and one Council vote in June.
- Public Testimony
More than 20 D.C. residents signed up to give testimony about their thoughts on redistricting today. Some residents will talk about the redistricting process and may have suggestions for making it more fair and open.
Apart from the legal requirements for ward population limits when redistricting, the subcommittee and D.C. Council will seek to keep “communities of interest” together when drafting the bills and voting. The term, while pretty ambiguous, refers to folks with shared interests and concerns in a community. Councilmember Henderson will be looking through an equity-first lens, according to Farnan, “where we are not going to dilute the voting power of any ward—every ward will still have its kind of core demographics and its core voting bloc.”
A likely hot topic in residents’ testimonies at the hearing, says Farnan, is parking, which—unlike citywide services—will be affected by redistricting: Due to unlimited street parking in neighborhoods like Navy Yard and Shaw, Ward 6 residents currently enjoy more residential parking spots, which many residents in the ward acknowledged at the first redistricting meeting in May was a big draw for them to stay in Ward 6.
“One thing I won’t be considering in this process is parking,” said Henderson at today’s hearing, chuckling. “In fact, next week I’ll be introducing legislation to delink our residential parking permit program from our ward political boundaries. With that off the table, I think we can have a much more focused conversation … [towards] delivering equal and fair access to representation.” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen later expressed his support for the proposed action.
Ward 6’s population increased by nearly 32,000 residents, or 41.9 percent, between 2010 and 2020. The growth spurt, which accounts for one-third of the city’s overall growth since 2010 and includes the development of NoMa, Navy Yard, and the Southwest waterfront, is largely attributed to the expansion of housing in the ward. Ward 6’s Black resident population dropped by 10 percent in the past decade during the ward’s “incredible amount of development— as some might call it, gentrification,” Silverman says. The residential growth there contrasts with the dearth of development and investment in low-income and majority Black communities east of the Anacostia River. At today’s hearing, Councilmember Silverman and other councilmembers denounced what she says was racially coded (or “not even that coded”) language from some residents’ previous testimonies objecting to being redistricted to Ward 7. The subcommittee is working with the Office of Racial Equity to address such issues around race and diversity, she said.
- Mapping Out Your Future
Folks also shared their reimaginings of ward boundaries for the next 10 years. Some showed their electronically drawn unique District maps, which some folks have also shared with subcommittee councilmembers’ offices. While Councilmember Silverman sees the mapping tool as one way to engage residents in the process, it’s not all proud maps and bright colors. The councilmember clarified the misconception that some folks, encountering redistricting maps residents make and share on social media, might have, that these maps come from the Council or subcommittee.
“The trade-off fosters a little … hysteria,” she says, referring to responses from residents who misunderstand that a map is just one person’s idea. “That [is] just their proposal, and certainly the committee will consider their proposal, but I think that has fueled anxiety that that could be the map.”
The offices of subcommittee members Silverman and Henderson have already gotten a sense of where residents’ testimony may exude the most passion: their neighborhood identities.
“The people who are very invested in redistricting, a lot of them have very strong feelings about advisory neighborhood commission boundaries,” says Silverman. Allen admitted he would be emotional about Ward 6 changes but that a shift in boundaries was inevitable.
But change is coming, whether folks like it or not, she says, as her and other city officials’ task is to meet the constitutional and legal requirements of redistricting, which means that ward boundaries will shift one way or another to meet those goals of representation.
“I know for those who might see a change, that is going to be hard and might seem unfair,” Silverman says. “I can’t convince you that it’s fair. What I can demonstrate is that I’ve tried my hardest, and our committee has tried its hardest, to make this process … understandable to you, that … we’ve listened to you.”
— Ambar Castillo (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
- To see today’s COVID-19 data, visit our coronavirus dashboard.
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