STRATFORD — The gerrymandering and political manipulation of this town’s voting lines was so brazen 20 years ago that it attracted national attention.
A New York Times story on June 8, 2003 quoted local officials as saying the Republican-led redistricting in Stratford after the 2000 U.S. Census, was “silly,” “a sham,” and “absurd.”
The Oronoque Village condo complex for 1,500 active seniors was cut in half and placed in two separate town council districts, increasing the chances for GOP candidates to win both districts. The change came despite residents complaining it will “pit neighbor against neighbor within the complex when political and budgetary interests differ in the two districts,” the story said.
Ten years later, after the 2010 Census, redistricting returned. Republicans maintained the Oronoque Village split and presented a new map that turned the Second District into a five-armed octopus. It continued to pack many of the town’s minority residents into a single district, and it increased the Republican numbers in the Lordship neighborhood’s First District by reaching out to include far-flung, tony neighborhoods near the abandoned Shakespeare Theatre and along the Housatonic River waterfront.
Now, as politicians await the release of the 2020 Census, Stratford residents – and Connecticut citizens across the state – should brace themselves for another round of political gamesmanship. Local government officials will redraw local boundaries to make them roughly the same size in population, consistent with the law – and usually to benefit of the party in charge.
Here is a spotlight on this often overlooked process.
Low profile, high stakes redistricting
My home town of Stratford may seem to be an unlikely place for Republican gerrymandering to occur. We vote Democratic for president, U.S. Senate, Congress, and usually for state legislative candidates.
But after the federal Census in 2000 and 2010, Republicans on the Town Council succeeded in tailoring the district boundaries to their advantage.
The result: the GOP has won a majority of the Town Council seats in 16 of the last 18 years in this usually blue town.
Now comes the 2020 Census. Some small Connecticut towns have a single voting district, so there are no redistricting battles. In medium to large municipalities with multiple districts, the redrawing of the local boundaries often attracts minimal attention.
After each Census, Connecticut cities and towns appoint redistricting commissions, made up of members of both political parties. The party with a majority on their local city or town council usually has a dominant role in setting the final boundary lines.
In Stratford, each of the 10 districts needs to be within 5 percent of the average number of residents – not voters — across all districts. In this town of 50,000 residents, we expect there to be about 35,000 adults counted in the census for Stratford in 2020. If there are 10 districts each averaging 3,500 residents, then the final lines would have to be drawn so that each district would have between 3,250 and 3,750 residents.
Computer tools like GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software help politicians fine tune which residents, from which party, go into which district.
Local communities want their district lines to match those of state House and Senate district lines, so they often wait until congressional and state legislative boundaries are drawn, based on the newly released Census data, then act on local boundaries.
Resistance to changing new district lines
In Stratford, the new district lines are expected to be approved in time for use in the 2022 state legislative election and the 2023 municipal election. Once any redistricting map is approved, a certain inertia sets in.
Politicians who are successfully elected in a given district usually don’t want a lot of changes that might hurt their chance in the next election. And voters generally hate, HATE to be told they have been moved to a new district and forced to interact with a new polling location and possibly a new town council representative.
When Oronoque Village was divided in half, some local leaders talked of suing their town or even seceding from Stratford and joining nearby Shelton. There are far fewer complaints these days as people got used to the new political realities and have a natural reluctance to have their town council member and polling place changed once again.
Ten year impact
Stratford will be electing a mayor, as well as town council candidates, this fall, and usually the mayoral race would receive the most attention. Both parties are putting together the strongest slates of town council candidates as possible in hopes of winning a majority of the 10 council seats. The winning party will dominate the local redistricting process in 2022 and will help determine the town’s political fate all the way until the 2030s, when the process begins again.
Elections have consequences, and the Fall 2021 municipal elections will have redistricting consequences for 10 long years. There are lots of sexier issues to follow; this is one you need to pay attention to.
James Simon is the Democratic Registrar of Voters in Stratford. In an earlier life, he covered elections for 10 years as a political reporter with The Associated Press.