Monday, January 21, 2013

Expanding Voting, and Voting Rights, in Takoma Park

Mayor Bruce Williams has added discussion of two linked initiatives, a voting-rights resolution and Election Day voter registration (EDVR), to the Tuesday, January 22 city-council agenda. I'm excited about these initiatives, which seek to expand participation in city elections and support non-city voting actions, but first --

The agenda also includes a Discussion of Financial Matters and Budget Priorities, a rather dry title for an important question: Should we spend unallocated Fiscal Year 2013 funds (the FY13 runs July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013), and what initiatives should the city prioritize in developing its FY14 budget? Do read the backgrounder compiled by Acting City Manager Suzanne Ludlow and share your thoughts with me or your non-Ward 1 council rep.

The voting-initiative background material covers both Councilmember Tim Male's draft Right to Vote resolution and my own EDVR proposal, with supporting materials from the League of Women Voters and the Maryland NAACP. The Maryland branches of both organizations are part of a coalition promoting Same Day Voting (essentially the same as EDVR) in Maryland. But the state legislative initiatives -- Delegate Kirill Reznik's HB 17Elective Franchise - Registration and Voting at Polling Places, which would change the Maryland constitution to allow (but not actually create) same-day voting; and Governor Martin O'Malley's proposed expansion of early voting, with same-day registration during early voting -- aren't a slam-dunk and would not clearly apply to city elections even if enacted. The ACLU (Maryland and Montgomery County), Progressive Maryland, and Takoma Park-based FairVote are part of the coalition and endorse Takoma Park EDVR; CASA of Maryland, Common Cause Maryland, and Maryland PIRG are other partners in the state coalition.

The goal of both EDVR and the Right to Vote resolution is to expand often-dismal Takoma Park electoral participation. Voter turn-out in wards with high proportions of renters and minorities is particularly low, which is why I hope we will both enact EDVR and consider another initiative, a modification to Takoma Park landlord-tenant code. The city is currently rewriting that section of city code, to update, clarify, and strengthen it. How about a new provision, to require landlords to provide a city-supplied voter-registration and electoral-information packet to new tenants? We'd have landlords distribute packets for household members who would be eligible to vote by the next even-year general election. Let's get these folks registered to vote, and then let's follow up, via schools, community organizations, and new direct outreach, to keep them informed about city elections!

I'd welcome your support for these initiatives -- contact me, your own non-Ward 1 council rep, or the city clerk (clerk@takomaparkmd.gov), or testify at a council meeting -- and as always, let me know if you have questions or concerns.

Thanks,

Seth, 301-873-8225


P.S. It has been suggested that the city switch back to even years for municipal elections in order to benefit from the turn-out attracted by county, state, and national races. This switch could jeopardize Takoma Park's non-citizen voting, however. A constituent who is an immigration attorney referred me to a 1997 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) memorandum that addresses "Legal Consequences of Voting by an Alien Prior to Naturalization." It states, "[i]t shall be unlawful for any alien to vote in any election held solely or in part for the purpose of electing a candidate for the office of President, Vice President, Presidential elector, Member of the Senate, Member of the House of Representatives, Delegate from the District of Columbia, or Residential Commissioner" (with some conditions).

Further, U.S. naturalization procedures, via the N-400 form, ask:
10.A.3. Have you ever voted in any Federal, state or local election in the United States?
My attorney-constituent wrote to me, about a Yes answer:
"It's a possible ground for denial of the application as well as removal (deportation). It would at least trigger a request for evidence or investigation. The person would have to present evidence that it's lawful to vote in a Takoma Park election without being a US citizen AND that he or she didn't deliberately misstate his/her status. The second is more difficult because there really wouldn't be any proof besides the person's word, unless she keeps a copy of her voter registration. Hopefully, the person could do this at the interview, but otherwise it would prolong and possibly derail the process -- and if decided against the person, could trigger removal proceedings."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Notes on Takoma Park Electoral Redistricting

The City of Takoma Park redraws its ward boundaries every ten years, using decennial census population figures. The City Council appointed a Redistricting Task Force to run the numbers and propose new boundaries, subject to council-provided guidelines. (Thank you to the task-force members for their work!) The city followed the same process ten years ago although both then and in the current redistricting exercise, the council (which is accountable to the public) chose to adjust the final plan presented by the task force. The aim, ten years ago and this year, is to ensure voting rights while drawing wards that are compact, distribute diversity and use natural boundaries (such as Sligo Creek Park) where feasible, and close in overall population figures.

Not everyone is satisfied with the near-final product. I wrote the text that follows to respond to one person's views, posted to a neighborhood e-mail list. My response -- the rest of this article --

We had only 4 people (including you) testify at the [January 14, 2013 public] hearing, and no one has contacted me by phone or e-mail, or posted to a Ward 1 list, regarding the latest plan. [By contrast, there was much more concern expressed, at council meetings and by e-mail, in reaction to earlier, task-force created plans.] My conclusion is that of the folks who are aware of redistricting, the vast majority either feel the latest plan is acceptable or don't think the district boundaries make much difference.

The latest plan does not change Ward 1 boundaries. [The current ward map is online.]

For those who care, I'll explain a bit more --

While the latest plan increases the already-high proportion of African-Americans in Ward 5, it significantly evens the balance in Ward 4. It does this by moving Mississippi Avenue, which is geographically contiguous to the rest of Ward 4 but only barely geographically attached to Ward 5, into Ward 4. It is true that by moving Mississippi Avenue into Ward 4 and moving the last apartment building along Maple, south of Sligo Creek, into Ward 5, the latest plan adds apartment dwellers and subtracts house owners in Ward 5. This change actually gives renters a stronger voice in Ward 5!

I'll add that I'm exploring whether the council can modify the city's landlord-tenant code to require landlords to distribute voter registration and electoral information packets to new tenants. I don't believe we can make voter registration, of new lease signers, automatic but we can take steps that should boost electoral participation of tenants.

What's essential is that residents, whatever their wards, whether renters or homeowners, have able council representation. When there was resident testimony about earlier plans, most frequently it was to protest losing representation by a council member whom the residents trusted.

I heard from constituents complaining about one of the earlier plans, proposed by the task force, that would have moved them to another ward. One of the plans would have moved one block in the Hodges Heights neighborhood to another ward. The plans similarly split other neighborhoods (SS Carroll, South of Sligo, Ritchie Avenue, the area that includes Jefferson & Lincoln Avenues), and residents got upset. Many turned out at a council meeting to testify last year when those earlier plans were presented.

The Redistricting Task Force presented their process at council meetings last fall/winter. Their process included disinclination to split Census Blocks because they felt they could not get a reliable count if they were to split Blocks. Unfortunately, many of the Block boundaries run down the middle of streets. The council had explicitly asked that ward boundaries be drawn to avoid putting the facing sides of a street in different wards, and we felt confident that we could get accurate ward population counts even when we didn't split the facing sides of a street. Further, early task-force plans didn't account for a couple of apartment buildings that were vacant during the 2010 census. The latest plan does account for them.

In conclusion, I think we're in a good place with the redistricting plan currently before the council. The task-force plans were essential steps toward this latest, acceptable plan. Through the course of the redistricting process, the various plans were made publicly accessible, the task force presented its method, public comment was received and heard, and the council conducted its discussions in open, public sessions that were aired on city TV. We have had a fair redistricting process that is headed toward what I believe to be a fair conclusion. The final step is a two-reading vote of a redistricting ordinance, that is, at two council meetings. Public testimony is invited, and also you may submit your comments to your council representative or the city clerk.

Thanks,

Seth, 301-873-8225

Sunday, January 13, 2013

January 14-17: Takoma Central, Redistricting, Long Branch Planning, and Flower Avenue Green Street Design


Three Takoma Park meetings this week are especially worthy of note, concerning 1) the redrawing of the city's electoral wards, 2) planning for community and business development in the Long Branch area, and 3) design of the city's planned Flower Avenue green street. Here's background information, drawn from the city's weekly update, followed by 4) an update: construction begins on the Takoma Central development on Carroll Street NW:

1) Public Hearing on City Redistricting Plan: The City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed City ward redistricting plan on Monday, January 14, at 7:30 p.m. in the Takoma Park Auditorium, 7500 Maple Avenue. The public is encouraged to attend the public hearing and sign up to speak. Written comments may be addressed to clerk@takomagov.org.

Ward 1 boundaries would not be changed by the proposed plan. The current ward map is online at http://takomaparkmd.gov/clerk/agenda/items/2013/011413-1_2003wardmap.pdf and the proposed ward map is at http://takomaparkmd.gov/clerk/agenda/items/2013/011413-1_2013proposedwardmap.pdf.


2) Long Branch Sector Plan Community Meeting: Wednesday, January 16,  6:00 - 8:30 p.m. at Rolling Terrace Elementary School.  To bring a better quality of life to residents and business owners in the Long Branch community, county planners are inking a plan that considers ways  to improve connections for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, bring a mix of homes, offices, retail and entertainment uses, and upgrade public spaces like parks and street fronts.  With the coming of the Purple Line light rail station, Long Branch is poised for positive change. Learn more and provide feedback on the Long Branch Sector Plan draft at http://www.montgomeryplanning.org/community/longbranch/.

3) Flower Avenue Green Street Design Development:  Join City staff and the engineering team to review draft design recommendations for the Flower Avenue Green Street project. The meeting will take place at Wilkinson Hall, at the corner of Flower Avenue and Division Street, on Thursday, January 17 from 7:15 pm through 9:30 pm. Plans are available on the City's website at http://www.takomaparkmd.gov/floweravenue, then click on Documents.

4) Takoma Central is the name of the planned building at 235-255 Carroll Street, NW, between Maple and Cedar Streets, in Washington DC, a.k.a. The Big Hole in the Ground. Construction is about to start. The developer has issued a newsletter outlining the construction schedule and covering matters such as traffic management. (The Carroll Street sidewalk and curb lane will be blocked off for the duration of construction, and construction entrances will be created, first on Maple Street and then on Carroll Street.) I posted a copy of the newsletter at  http://takotra.org/TakomaCentral-January2013Newsletter.pdf.

As always, please get in touch with me with your questions or concerns about these or other Takoma Park city matters.