Members of the Prince George's County Council.
Image by Prince George’s County.
This article is Part 1 of a two-part series to help demystify the County Council redistricting process in Prince George’s County and explain the impact it can have on our lives. A version of this series appeared on Greater Greater Washington.
On September 1, the Prince George’s County Redistricting Commission submitted its map of proposed County Council districts based on 2020 census results to the County Council. Unfortunately, the proposed redistricting plan replicates serious flaws in the current County Council district map that harm lower-income and urban inner-Beltway communities and that increase the political power of the wealthiest, least-dense, and least-urban parts of the county.
As two Prince George’s County residents from north and central/south county with a keen interest in the redistricting process, we thought it would be helpful to do a series of articles that helps clarify and demystify the process; explain the impact it can have on our lives; and suggest viable alternatives.
What is Redistricting?
Redistricting is the process of redrawing legislative district lines. It takes place every 10 years, following the national census, at the federal, state, and local level. Each jurisdiction has its own unique rules and processes. (For a deeper dive on redistricting, check out the All About Redistricting website maintained by the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.)
The way that district lines are drawn can determine who is eligible to run for office, whether certain neighborhoods or community interests will be adequately represented, and whether some Black, Hispanic, and low-income communities will have a fair opportunity to elect representatives of their choice.
Maryland’s statewide redistricting has been the subject of a great deal of media and academic attention, largely because of the way state lawmakers have historically drawn heavily gerrymandered congressional districts to ensure that seven of Maryland’s eight US House seats are likely to favor Democratic, rather than Republican, candidates. By contrast, very little attention is being paid to the ways in which county and municipal legislative districts are being drawn in Maryland.
The redistricting process in Prince George’s County
As required by the county charter, the County Council must hold a public hearing on the redistricting commission’s proposed plan between September 16 and October 1 (i.e., within 15-30 days of receiving the plan). Then, it has until November 30 to decide whether to allow the commission’s plan to become law, or to draw its own plan.
The county charter requires that council districts be “compact, contiguous, and equal in population.” However, the redistricting commission decided early on that it would be guided by one primary goal: “least change” — i.e., making only the minimum changes necessary to ensure that the population deviation among the existing council districts does not rise to the level where they would be legally presumed to be in violation of the “one person, one vote” principles inherent in the US Constitution.
In the end, the redistricting commission elected to retain the 2011 redistricting plan, with the exception of five precincts that it moved to reduce population disparities among the districts. Specifically, two precincts in Adelphi were moved from District 1 to District 2; one precinct in Glenn Dale was moved from District 3 to District 4; and two precincts in District Heights were moved from District 6 to District 7.
The redistricting commission’s proposed 2021 county council districts, based on 2020 census data.
Map drawn by D.W. Rowlands using the Dave’s Redistricting web tool.
Unfortunately, the redistricting commission’s “least change” proposal replicates the problems with the current County Council districts: several districts are quite oddly shaped, and nearby communities that share common interests are not particularly well-represented. Additionally, as discussed below, the proposed 2021 County Council redistricting plan dilutes the voting strength of lower income and urban communities inside the Beltway and fails to provide equally populated council districts as required by the county charter.
The redistricting commission’s proposed 2021 districts disadvantage lower-income populations
Prince George’s County is incredibly diverse, with both some of the Washington, DC region’s lowest-income census tracts inside the Beltway and some of the nation’s highest-income majority-Black census tracts outside the Beltway. Since the 2020 census redistricting data that was released earlier this month does not include income data, we approximated each of the proposed districts with 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimate data.
The central and southern portions of inner-Beltway Prince George’s County (south of US Route 50) are divided into four districts: Districts 5, 6, 7, and 8, although this area has a population of roughly 215,000 residents — enough to make two ideally-sized districts of 107,500 residents each. The median resident of this area lives in a block group with a median household income of $65,000 per year — well below the county’s median household income of $85,000 and only 63% of the DC metro area’s median household income of $103,750.
Despite the fact that this is an area of concentrated low incomes, only one of the four districts that cover this area — District 7 — has a median block group with a household income below $75,000 per year, while two — District 6 and District 8 — have median block groups with household incomes well above the $85,000 median household income for the county.
This type of blunting of lower-income inner-Beltway populations can be highly problematic, because it can reduce the voice, influence, and perspective of that demographic on the council, which can skew legislative decision-making in a way that does not represent the interests of the whole county.
The proposed districts are also bad for urbanism
The residents living inside the Beltway comprise about 43% of the county’s population. That is equivalent to almost four ideal districts of 107,500 residents. However, the Redistricting Commission’s proposed plan divides this area into eight districts. (Only District 9 has no extension within the Beltway.) This grouping of districts is bad for urbanism and public transportation, because it does not reflect the true densities of the county’s inner-Beltway urban core.
The median resident inside the Beltway lives in a block group with a density of 7,500 residents per square mile; yet only one inner-Beltway district, District 2, reflects a population with a median resident density of 7,500 or higher. In fact, only three of the county’s nine districts — districts 2, 3 and 7 — have median residents living at population densities higher than the county median population density of 4,000 residents per square mile.
This “cracking” of high-density areas is particularly notable in the lower-income areas inside the Beltway in Districts 5, 6, 7, and 8, as discussed above. The median resident of these four districts inside the Beltway lives in a block group with a density of 6,000 residents per square mile. Only District 7, with its median density of 7,000 residents per square mile, has a median density higher than the county median of 4,000 residents per square mile.
Likewise, only 45% of central and southern county inner-Beltway residents live in single-family detached housing; yet only one of the four districts — again, District 7 (encompassing Capitol Heights, District Heights, Seat Pleasant, Suitland, and surrounding communities) — has a clear majority of residents not living in single-family detached housing.
The northern portion of the county inside the Beltway has a similar, albeit less severe issue with density cracking. While District 2, which is made up of some of the most-urban parts of the county, has a median density of 11,000 residents per square mile, the other three northern districts that extend inside the Beltway — districts 1, 3, and 4 (encompassing Laurel, Bowie, Hyattsville, College Park, Greenbelt, and surrounding areas) — have median densities of 4,000, 6,500, and 3,000 residents per square mile, respectively. However, the portions of these three districts inside the Beltway, plus the outside-the-Beltway portion of the city of Greenbelt (all of which is in District 4), have the population of an ideal-sized district and a median population density of 8,000 residents per square mile
If the portion of the county inside the Beltway were divided into four more-compact districts instead of the eight districts it is split among now, it is likely that all four seats would represent areas with median densities of at least 6,000 residents per square mile, and that the two northern districts would have median densities of at least 8,000 residents per square mile: a much stronger voice for density and transit than we have today.
The 2021 plan does not equalize population among the districts
The primary purpose of redistricting after every decennial census is to ensure that legislative districts at the federal, state, and local level all comport with the “one person, one vote” requirements of the US Constitution. That principle requires that districts be equally sized, so that no one person’s voting strength is greater than anyone else’s.
To figure out what the “ideal district population” is, one takes the total population of the jurisdiction, as determined by the most recent census, and divides it by the number of districts in the legislative body. So, for the Prince George’s County Council, based on the county’s 2020 total population of 967,201, the ideal population for each of the nine council districts is 107,467 people.
Of course, it is impossible to achieve mathematical precision when drawing districts. Therefore, the Supreme Court clarified in the 1964 case Reynolds v. Sims that lawmakers must “make an honest and good faith effort to construct districts…as nearly of equal population as is practicable.” For congressional districts, the sum of the numeric deviation of the smallest and largest districts (i.e., the “maximum population deviation”) typically has to be under one percent.
However, courts allow more flexibility in drawing state and local districts. Maximum population deviations over 10% are presumptively unconstitutional, but if the maximum deviation is below 10%, the person challenging the plan must show that illegal, discriminatory, or illegitimate factors caused a greater-than-necessary deviation.
The Redistricting Commission’s proposed 2021 plan has a maximum population deviation of 6.96%. That is because they were working from a “least change” perspective in modifying the 2011 plan, which itself had a maximum population deviation of 7.30%. But even the commission’s hired consultant, Stanford Law professor Nate Persily, conceded that a “least change” plan easily could have been drawn with maximum population deviations well under 2% without splitting precincts.
In our next article, we will review a couple of alternative redistricting proposals for the Prince George’s County Council that provide better representation for the lower-income and more densely populated inner-Beltway portion of the county, and that provide more compact, contiguous, and equally populated districts, in keeping with the US Constitution and the Prince George’s County Charter.