Fair representation is goal of political mapmakers in redistricting. But what is fair?

Photo of Ken Dixon

SHELTON — As the General Assembly’s Reapportionment Committee winds down and the next phase of drawing new political maps of Connecticut begins later in the week, a central theme has emerged in the public hearings: voters want to be counted.

During a 45-minute hearing in Shelton City Hall on Monday — the third of four scheduled listening sessions — citizens and state lawmakers alike stressed the need to maximize representation in the General Assembly.

That, of course, can mean different things to different people as the state goes about using new U.S. Census numbers to create new districts for the state House and Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Take, for example, small towns with more than one House and Senate member. Some may say that’s a way to obtain added muscle in the legislature while others say it dilutes a town’s clout. Derby Town Clerk Marc Garofolo presented the committee of eight General Assembly members with a resolution from the local board of alders asking for just one state representative and one senator, rather than multiple lawmakers.

“The city of Derby has been split into at least two or three different state representative and Senate districts,” Garofalo told the committee of four Democrats and four Republicans. He noted that since the state’s Constitutional Convention of 1965, local officials believe that’s not a plus.

“The citizens of Derby deserve a unified voice with clarity of vision on the issues that are important to Connecticut’s smallest city,” Garofalo said, reading the alders’ resolution, adopted last year.

But John Szewczyk, the Republican second selectman in the town of Durham, said his community of 7,500 east of Wallingford has benefited from being broken into multiple House and Senate districts. “Four representatives and senators has been huge,” Szewczyk said. “We’ve had a lot of access. I can’t say whether our residents think it’s better or worse.”

With the announcement in August of decennial Census figures, months after the usual April release date, the committee is barely getting started. But under the state Constitution it will cease to exist after September 15, when it will be reconstituted into a nine-member commission with most of the same participants along with a new ninth member to be appointed by the governor who will break partisan ties.

Broadly, population has moved out of small eastern Connecticut towns and population has grown in the areas closer to New York.

“Wilton is the largest municipality without a resident senator or state Rep., as I understand it, and Wilton is the largest municipality split into multiple districts, none of which are 50 percent or more of the district,” said veteran state Rep. Tom O’Dea, who represents New Canaan and Wilton. “It is unfair for the residents of Wilton to be split up the way they have been split up.”

State Rep. Gregg Haddad, D-Mansfield and state Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, co-chairmen of the committee, said that the hearings — culminating Tuesday night at 7 in an online hearing — have sought input from residents who, unlike in the past, have sophisticated tools to draw their own proposed maps, including Dave’s Redistricting and districtr.org.

More than 45 people have registered to speak for the Tuesday night hearing, but few have testified to the Reapportionment Committee over the last week.

At a public hearing in Norwich last Thursday, Dave Nowakowski, a resident of Lisbon, cautioned the committee against splitting up small towns like his with less than 5,000 residents. Some residents of Lisbon are represented by state Rep. Doug Dubitsky and others are represented by Rep. Brian Lanoue, both Republicans.

“Rather than having two, for many people it feels like you have no representative because you are part of other towns that are wholly represented,” Nowakowski said.

Lisbon, with a population of 4,220, has two polling locations — not an insignificant cost for a small town, he added. Garofalo also cited the costs of running elections in Derby.

Last Wednesday night, during a 20-minute hearing in the socially distanced Legislative Office Building in Hartford, officials from the League of Women Voters and Common Cause in Connecticut joined a private citizen in asking the committee to consider keeping under-represented communities together.

“The basic point is that we believe that voters should choose their representatives rather than have representatives cherry pick their constituents,” Cheri Quickmire, executive director of Common Cause, told the committee.

She said that in the past, district maps have been redrawn by politicians with little input from the public.

“Back in the day, things were done sort of behind closed doors,” Quickmire said. “And we really, really feel strongly that needs to be a public process and that there should be as much real transparency to create fair districts.”

Included in the new maps will be about 9,000 people incarcerated in state prisons who in the past have been counted as residents of the towns in which those institutions are located. A new state law requires that the incarcerated be counted in their actual hometowns, complicating the map-making process even more for the state House and Senate.

“We really want to make sure that we are rebuilding trust in our government and ensuring that every voter has an equal opportunity to elect candidates that share their actual experience and values,” Quickmire said.

Laura Smits, president of the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, said voters are at the center of democracy and district mapping determines who is on the ballot.

“If voters don’t feel their vote will count because of the way their district is drawn, or feel that their preferred candidate has little chance of prevailing, they don’t vote,” Smits said. “Voter alienation equals voter suppression. Unfortunately, the redistricting process remains cloaked in mystery to many voters.”

She acknowledged that the late arrival of the data has created obstacles.

“While your committee is a bipartisan one, appointed by party leaders in the state Senate and House, this process is far from objective,” Smits said, stressing that the League of Women Voters would support a new, independent type of panel, made up of citizens, representatives of public-interest groups and members of minority communities.

Staff writer Julia Bergman contributed to this report.