Last week, the DC Council redistricting committee issued its proposed boundaries, which included a strange and surprising line between Ward 2 and 6 which moves territory based on the personal and political self-interest of one person, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans.

At-large members Michael Brown and Phil Mendelson have let themselves be complicit in this clear conflict of interest by unquestioningly accepting this line, which has been dubbed a “Jackmander.” They should look for objective ways to draw the line fairly rather than letting one colleague pick and choose his own boundaries.

Proposed redistricting changes in NW and SW DC.

Image by Geoff Hatchard.

In the above map, thick yellow lines represent current ward boundaries. Medium burgundy lines represent tract boundaries. Wards are colored red (1), green (2), purple (5), and blue (6). Areas moved are dark blue (from 2 to 6), dark green (from 6 to 2), and dark purple (from 6 to 5).

To address population changes since the 2000 Census, wards 7 and 8 both had to grow and 2 had to shrink. The most logical change to Ward 8 reunited the Fairlawn neighborhood, and the committee chose that. To grow Ward 7, they made the widely-anticipated yet very unpopular choice to move much of Hill East from Ward 6 to 7. Residents of that area fought against the idea hard, and are expected to continue doing so at a hearing tomorrow.

The bigger surprise came in the boundary between Ward 2 and 6. To make Ward 2 smaller, moving Mount Vernon Square and/or Shaw to Ward 6 was the most logical change. But the committee also made substantial other changes, moving big chunks of the Penn Quarter and Judiciary Square areas from Ward 6 to Ward 2 and the southwest federal buildings from 2 to 6.

This is particularly odd since most of the changes directly contradict principles in the committee report. The report rejects the option of moving Carver-Langston from Ward 5 to 7 because it “draws new neighborhoods into redistricting” and is “not as compact” as the other option.

However, the proposed change draws many new neighborhoods into redistricting and is not as compact. Had the committee only moved the tracts east of 7th Street to Ward 6 and left downtown alone, they would have ended up with a more compact map. Likewise, they could have moved the western Shaw tract and just the Penn Quarter area west of 5th Street and again ended up with a more compact map that affected fewer neighborhoods.

Two alternate Ward 2/6 lines. Left: most compact, affecting fewest neighborhoods. Right: Unifies more Census tracts.

The committee report pats itself on the back for several changes that reunite some split Census tracts. Moving the southwest federal buildings to Ward 6 does make sense, since those are in the same Census tracts as the neighboring parts of Southwest Waterfront and are in ANC 6D. Likewise, the plan moves the small piece of Ward 6’s “chimney” northeast of New York and New Jersey Avenues to Ward 5. That also reunifies a Census tract and makes geographic sense.

Why do Census tracts matter? For one, the law requires redistricting to try to keep Census tracts together. The current committee seems to have ignored that dictate. Also, a great deal of data is reported on the Census tract level. When government agencies compute statistics for wards, they save time and money if ward boundaries primarily conform to tracts.

Yet the plan leaves 3 blocks from 9th to 11th between P and O in Ward 2 while moving the rest of tract 49.01 to Ward 6. It moves 2 other blocks from 7th to 9th between N and O into Ward 6 despite not moving any more of tract 49.02. And it grabs an arbitrary-seeming half of tract 59, around Judiciary Square, excluding the small triangle between 5th, H, and Massachusetts.

Jack Evans represents Ward 2, and was the only ward-specific member on the 3-person committee. He always has coveted having downtown in his ward, because of the many businesses in the area. Representing the region gives him fundraising power and some authority over more of the city’s activity out of proportion to his ward’s size.

Evans even admitted much of this at the markup on Thursday. The boundaries move most of ANC 2C and the Mt. Vernon Square Neighborhood Association (MVSNA) to Ward 6, but circumnavigate the Convention Center. Jack Evans said at the markup, “Nobody has done more for the Convention Center than me.”

Convention Center Community Association head Martin Moulton posted this picture, advocating for the Convention Center to be kept with the Shaw neighborhood as it moves to Ward 6:

Image by CCCAPrez on Twitpic.

It seems that the other two members of the committee, at-large councilmembers Michael Brown and Phil Mendelson, simply let Evans draw his own lines. Evans even introduced two amendments during the markup the day after the map was released. Brown and Mendelson simply let them through without discussion or debate, even though one of the amendments as Evans explained it on the dais mistakenly moved part of Ward 1 into Ward 6. Mendelson is usually the most attentive to detail, but that day, he seemed to be napping.

On committees I serve on, such as the WMATA Riders’ Advisory Council, many members are extremely careful to avoid doing anything that benefits one member in any way. Members have even been reluctant to do things that might benefit this blog, even though I get no remuneration from the blog and its goals are aligned with those of the RAC. There’s just a strong aversion to even allowing an appearance of a conflict.

Having a ward member on the redistricting committee is already a dicey proposition. Members justified it because Evans is the longest-serving member of the Council and has participated in two redistrictings. But it should have been obvious to Brown and Mendelson that they must avoid an appearance, let alone the reality, of letting Evans manipulate the decisions for his own gain.

They should have identified some objective criteria for choosing the 2/6 boundary, whether that’s keeping Census tracts whole, or neighborhood associations whole, or changing the fewest blocks, or maximizing the happiness of residents using the metrics in our own Redistricting Game analysis (which they used in the report to justify some changes while making other changes directly contrary to the data).

They should have kept Evans out of that part of it, and decided on the Ward 2 boundaries without giving him an extra voice. Instead, they apparently outsourced all decisions about the 2/6 boundary to Evans himself, oblivious or uncaring about the clear conflict of interest.