Posted: April 8, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

One upon a time, the legislative districts were so immutable, they were written into the Delaware Constitution. True story.

The districts did not change as they do nowadays, every 10 years, and as they are presently being re-contemplated in time for the 2012 election.

They were once such a certainty that the writers of a civics textbook in the 1950s confidently printed a map of all the districts in an appendix, just before another one listing the crimes that could get people sentenced to the whipping post.

Poisoning was 60 lashes. Counterfeiting was 39 lashes. The law made very clear which was more valuable, a horse or a wife. Horse thievery was 20 lashes, but wife beating could bring as little as five. Those were the days.

The legislative districts used to be based on geography, generally following the mystical lines of the state's historical peculiarity called a hundred, as in Brandywine Hundred. It did not matter what their population was. In a count taken 50 years ago, the state representative districts had as many as 58,000 people and as few as 1,600.

Then along came the mad, mad, mad, mad Sixties. Rights were breaking out all over. There were civil rights and women's rights and a clamoring for 18-year-old voters' rights, not to mention Beatle haircuts. Rush Limbaugh never has gotten over it.

In Tennessee some voters decided it was high time for legislative rights. Their districts were based on geography, too, and they were tired of having their more numerous rural districts outvote their population centers. They sued. The case wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that legislative districts must be roughly equal in population. One person, one vote.

This was big news in Delaware, where downstate was outvoting upstate in the General Assembly, even though the rise of the suburbs and the baby boom were turning New Castle County into the incredible population hulk.

The Senate had 17 members -- five from each county and two more from Wilmington. The House of Representatives had 35 members -- 10 from each county and five more from Wilmington. It gave Kent and Sussex counties, voting together, an advantage over New Castle County of 10-7 in the Senate and 20-15 in the House.

Some New Castle County voters led by Dick Sincock, later a Republican state representative himself, went to court and got the same ruling Tennessee did.

"We're through," one downstate senator said.

It is no credit to Delaware that the whipping post outlasted malapportionment, as the geographically-skewed standard for the districts was called.

The state was finished with malapportionment in 1964 but did not officially rid itself of the whipping post, the last state to do so, until 1972. Nobody was whipped after 1952, although a judge tried to order it in the early 1960s. The idea was so shocking that state officials found ways to delay and delay until it was quietly never carried out.

The new legislative districts did not come easily. Between various court orders and a new federal census in 1970, the maps were in flux until the 1972 election.

The Senate went from 17 seats for the 1962 election, to 18 seats for the 1964 and 1968 elections, to 19 seats for the 1968 and 1970 elections, and then to 21 seats for the 1972 election, as it is now.

It is worth noting the 1966 election gave the Senate a preposterous 9-9 split between the Democrats and the Republicans, and the mood was sulfurous.

"You didn't dare leave the chamber," a Republican aide said.

The House stayed at 35 seats until it went to 39 seats for the 1968 election and then settled on 41 seats from the 1972 election onward.

Ever since then, the drill has been the same, new maps churned out each decade after the census to smooth out the population drifts. Not that there has been anything routine about it.

In the 1981 redistricting, the Republicans were in charge of the House and naturally tried to draw the lines to help themselves. Ha! Their handiwork blew up on them, as the Reagan recession cost their party at the polls in 1982 and the Democrats took over. The Republicans did get the majority back in the next election, though.

Redistricting in 1991 went high-tech. For the first time, there were computers and software programs to move around the boundaries, no more crawling over maps with marking pens to fashion the districts and every little change forcing hours and hours of reconfiguring.

The 2001 redistricting was so acrimonious, it was finished a year late. The problem was the House wanted to preserve all the incumbents by adding four seats to itself and two seats to the Senate, so no legislators would lose their districts because of shrinking populations, but the Senate refused.

One-person-one-vote was the law, not one-legislator-one-district.

The standoff ended up in court. The disagreement was so complex that it required an unprecedented joint session of two courts. The Superior Court sent a panel of three judges, one from each county, to sit with the chancellor from the Court of Chancery. It created a bench that was half Democrat and half Republican.

The ruling from this strange judicial hybrid left the size of the chambers intact and threatened that the chancellor would draw the new map unless the legislature did one in about two weeks.

Legislators, of course, are as fierce about their districts as Barbara Frietchie with her flag. The only prospect scarier than redrawing the lines for themselves was ceding it to somebody else. They got to work, and that was that.