The D.C. Council approved a draft plan on May 26th for adjusting the boundaries of the District’s wards in light of population changes reflected in the 2010 Census. The process has been contentious because every option leaves many residents feeling that they will not be fairly represented. Councilmember Jack Evans, who co-shared the redsitricting panel, commented in the Washington Post, "Redistricting is the issue that gets people the maddest. Generally people are civil in dealing with other issues. When redistricting comes, they lose that.”
The most vexing part comes from the need to expand Ward 7 and shrink Ward 2 due to a population growth spurt in the latter and relative stagnation in the former. Sandwiched between them, either Ward 5 or Ward 6 must undergo a southeastern shift in boundaries for the plan to comply with the D.C. Code, which requires equal ward populations within a 5 percent range of deviation.
There is no simple way to satisfy that rule without ruffling feathers somewhere (If there's any doubt, give the D.C. redistricting game a try with an eye to established neighborhoods and natural barriers. Also check out the 5-part analysis based on citizen-drawn redistricting maps.)
The current plan takes a chunk out of Ward 6, which encompasses the greater Capitol Hill neighborhood and puts it with Ward 7 across the river. Ward 6 residents-- particularly those in Rosedale and Hill East-- have rallied together against the division of what appears to be a remarkably cohesive and civic-minded community. Together with their councilman, they succeeded in convincing the Council to carve out two Ward 6 public schools that area parents have arduously improved over the last 5-10 years. But the rest of Hill East will go to Ward 7 because, according to the report released Thursday, no alternative exists that would not spur similar arguments from people in other areas.
The concerns of the Rosedale Citizens Alliance, which has spearheaded the "Hands Off Redistricting Ward 6!" campaign, stem largely from the prospect of being represented by a councilmember whose true political base resides on the other side of the river. The wards differ dramatically in demographic composition, and Ward 6 residents say they have different interests and priorities than their Ward 7 counterparts. They also worry that area development and public works will suffer since most of the ward’s funds will presumably be spent across the river (and a 20-minute Metro ride away).
Kingman Park residents can attest to the impact firsthand. Their neighborhood became the first one west of the river to be absorbed by Ward 7 in 2001, and they have never stopped fighting for its return to Ward 6. At public meetings, they discussed problems with political isolation and confusion regarding city services and public safety measures. One of D.C.’s at-large councilmembers admitted "that Kingman Park has been disadvantaged by being in Ward 7." Nevertheless, the Subcommittee stated that adding Hill East brings the proportion of Ward 7 that lies west of the river above 12 percent. This, the Committee believes, will address the concerns about being heard. But being heard is not the same thing as being listened to.
Proportional voting systems such as choice voting or cumulative voting present an agreeable answer to the redistricting conundrum confronted by D.C. and other localities across the country. By adopting a system like choice voitng, cities and counties could stop dicing up communities with arbitrary lines based exclusively on geography and raw numbers. Residents could effectively define their own districts based not only on geography but on shared interests and concerns.
Choice voting works especially well for local government because the pull of proximity is at its strongest. Because municipal and county government affects residents based on their physical location (public works, emergency and police services, economic development, parks and recreation, transportation, etc), many people will naturally gravitate toward voting with and for people living near them. Geography thus exerts a strong force on how voters group themselves and make their choices, a fact that those who want guaranteed geographic representation often overlook. Also, because people tend to live near people similar to themselves, many voters have already self-organized geographically by their interests. Choice voting simply allows local voters to elect representatives that embody the character of their area as it is or as they desire it to be - likely with a geographic connection, but by choice, not coercion.
So with choice voting the Capitol Hill neighborhood could collectively decide on a first-choice candidate to represent their interests, and other areas could do the same. Moreover, those living in rapidly growing areas such as Wards 2 and 6 would not have to helplessly watch as rising populations dilute their individual votes relative to the rest of D.C., especially Wards 7 and 8, over the next 10 years.
Choice voting also gives a seat at the table to those significant minority interests that are cohesive but not compact enough. Currently, voters either lacking critical mass geographically or living within gerrymandered districts are not represented if their interests diverge from the reigning majority. By allowing people freedom to effectively decide themselves what lines and ties matter to them, PR promotes diversity of thought at the local level and truly fair representation for all.
If this sounds appealing, you can learn more about how choice voting works, where it's been adopted, and how to enact a proportional voting system where you live in the Fair Representation section of FairVote.org.