Every 10 years, the DC Council redraws the boundaries of the city’s eight wards in the wake of the US Census. This is a gut-wrenching political process. Neighborhoods fear division. Constituents are loath to part with familiar ward councilmembers or residential parking privileges. Some cite “lower property values,” lack of “common interests” or “too much public housing.”
Under the DC Code and federal law, a redistricting plan cannot have “the purpose and effect” of diluting the voting strength of minority citizens. To be more specific, it cannot over-concentrate minorities in fewer wards or disperse them across too many. So, race is a central element for consideration.
“Race is the one of the big issues in our city,” declared At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I), chair of the DC Council’s Redistricting Committee, speaking at a recent meeting of the Ward 8 Democrats. “We are going to have an honest and true discussion in the redistricting hearings. We are going to talk about race directly … We are not going to dance around it,” she emphasized.
This article explores three possible redistricting scenarios with an eye to examining their impact on the racial composition of future wards. Before starting, however, it is important to understand the rules.
The District’s Charter fixes the number of wards at eight. The DC Code dictates that the city’s population must be apportioned equally (one person, one vote) among the wards, with no more than a 5% deviation permitted. Dividing the city’s 2020 population (689,545) by eight yields 86,193. To be legal, a redistricting plan must limit the population of each ward to between 81,883 and 90,504.
The population of each ward has grown, the 2020 Census revealed, but not equally. While Ward 6 is home to 108,202 residents, Ward 7 numbers only 76,255, a 31,947 difference. The US Constitution, which enshrines the principle of one person, one vote, requires this disparity be rebalanced.
In the wake of each decennial census, states across the nation routinely redraw political boundaries. In the District, DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson appointed a three-member committee consisting of Silverman, At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds (D) and At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson (I) to develop a plan to overhaul the ward boundaries. This plan must secure a majority of votes on the committee and then be approved by a majority vote of the Council.
Under the DC Code, wards redrawn under redistricting must be “compact and contiguous.” The boundaries should conform as much as possible to those of the US Census tracts. This limits population exchanges to adjacent wards. In addition, Silverman stated at a Council hearing, the redistricting plan should avoid dividing “communities of interest” ‒ neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, Hillcrest, Brookland or Georgetown.
Now that the rules are clear, it is time to take a look at three most likely redistricting scenarios. Driven by the low populations of the city’s eastern wards, all scenarios move boundaries across the Anacostia River. There are three simple ways to accomplish this: move Southwest, move the Navy Yard or move Hill East. The outsized population of Ward 6 also requires a shift in its western borders. A transfer of Shaw to Ward 2 appears inevitable.
Ward 6 needs to shed 17,698 residents. Even adjusting its eastern borders is insufficient to pare down its size. All three scenarios below reunite Shaw by moving Ward 2’s boundaries to N and Fifth streets NW. This rough rectangle is home to 7,127 residents, 40.74% (2,904) of whom are Black. Its transfer raises Ward 2’s Black population to 9,768, or 10.97%.
Two additional minor adjustments to the boundaries of Ward 1 and 5 are necessary so that Ward 2’s population does not grow beyond the 90,504 legal upper limit. Shifting Ward 1’s southern boundary to S Street NW, a short stretch of New Jersey Avenue and Rhode Island NW, raises its population to 85,578 and lowers Ward 5’s slightly to 89,425. Both would be below 90,504.
Now, it is time to turn to the three scenarios.
Scenario 1: Move Southwest
The 2020 Census counted 78,513 residents in Ward 8. To meet the legal lower threshold of 81,883, the ward needs 3,370 residents. Analogously, neighboring Ward 7 requires 5,628. Both are contiguous to Ward 6. The most obvious way to redistrict is to start where Wards 6 and 8 meet at the base of the Douglass Bridge in Southwest.
Southwest is the neighborhood south of Independence Avenue and the Mall, northeast of the Potomac River and west of South Capitol Street. It is home to a vibrant, mixed-income community numbering 16,447, of whom 36.4% (6,001) are Black.
Adding Southwest to Ward 8’s existing residents puts the reconfigured ward at 94,960, which is 4,457 above the legally allowable number of 90,503. Moving Ward 7’s northern boundary south to Good Hope and Naylor Roads SE increases the ward’s population to an acceptable 84,386.
The new population of the reconfigured Ward 6 would be 84,335. The reconfigured Ward 8 ends up with 86,829 residents, and its white population rises 289.79% to 11,137. Ward 6’s Black population falls 31.5% to 19,617.
Scenario 2: Move Navy Yard
The other neighborhood connected to Ward 8 at the Douglass Bridge is the Navy Yard. Bounded by South Capitol, the Anacostia River and I-695, this area is home to Nationals Park and is one of the city’s fast-growing areas, with scores of large new apartment complexes. Its population is 11,036, of whom 1,877 are Black.
The removal of Shaw from Ward 6 and the addition of the Navy Yard to Ward 8 brings that ward’s total population to an acceptable 89,784 while reducing Ward 6’s number to 89,736, with 23,811 Black residents. However, it does not address Ward 7’s deficit of 5,628.
The simplest fix is to move Ward 8’s northern boundary south by snaking it from the Anacostia River along Pennsylvania Avenue, turning south on Fairlawn Avenue, heading south again on 17th Street and finally turning east on Good Hope Road, before heading south again to Naylor Road SE to the District line. This border brings both wards within acceptable numbers: 82,806 (Ward 7) and 82,998 (Ward 8).
Under the Navy Yard plan, Ward 8’s white population rises 285% to 11,072. Ward 6’s Black population falls 16.86 percent to 23,811.
Scenario 3: Move Hill East
A third option is to move the section of Capitol Hill known as Hill East to Ward 7. Lying east of 15th Street, south of Benning Road NE and north of K Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, this area has 14,556 residents, 7,524 of whom are Black. This move, with transfer of Shaw to Ward 2, reduces the number of Ward 6 residents to 90,477, within the 5% deviation.
Ward 8, however, still requires an additional 3,370 residents. A simple solution is to move Ward 8 north. Snaking its northern border from the Sousa Bridge east along Pennsylvania Avenue SE, then south along Branch Avenue SE, turning west on Alabama Avenue and then east again on Naylor Road SE to the District line, leaves the Hillcrest home of Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D) within the ward, while increasing Ward 8’s population to a legally allowable 82,281. Ward 7’s population would increase to 82,792.
Under the Hill East plan, Ward 6’s Black population falls 30.98% to 19,792. The racial composition of both Wards 7 and 8 remains largely unchanged.
The Hill East plan raises two important caveats. First, it divides Hill East from Capitol Hill, with which it is tightly socially integrated. Civic, fraternal, nonprofit and other organizations span both sides of 15th Street SE and create a “community of interest.”
Second, no matter what the maps display, most Hillcrest residents consider 25th Street and Naylor Road SE to be their neighborhood’s eastern border. In their eyes, Branch Avenue bisects the neighborhood. Many civic associations, nonprofits and other organizations knit this area together. It also is home to Ward 7 Councilmember Gray. These factors complicate any reconfiguration attempt.
Both Capitol Hill and Hillcrest qualify as communities of interest. Redistricting plans should avoid dividing such neighborhoods, Silverman has stated repeatedly.
Race: The Elephant in the Room
Given that a legal redistricting plan cannot have either the “purpose” or “effect” of diluting the voting strength of minority citizens, race becomes a central element of redistricting. “When you talk about public housing versus Navy Yard, are we going to move Black residents in communities that are predominantly Black in Ward 6, or are we going to move more mixed or predominantly white communities in Ward 6 to be part of Ward 8?” asked Silverman at a recent meeting of the Ward 8 Democrats. “Let’s just talk about it genuinely, authentically and honestly. I think it is a good discussion and one we don’t often have in our city,” she added.
All three scenarios start with the transfer of Shaw’s 2,904 Black residents from Ward 6 to Ward 2. This raises Ward 2’s Black population to 9,768, or 10.97%.
Under the Navy Yard scenario, Ward 6’s Black population falls to 23,811, the least reduction of the three considered. The new ward remains 26.53% Black, almost unchanged from its current configuration.
Moving Hill East reduces Ward 6’s Black population of 28,640 to 19,792, reducing its share to 21.86%. Transferring Southwest similarly drops the Black population of Ward 6 from to 28,640 to 19,617, or 20.72%.
Thus, both the Hill East and Southwest plans increase the number of Black voters in Ward 7 and 8 while reducing them in Ward 6 by roughly one-third. If redistricting was a simple exercise in math, the Navy Yard plan would win, since it avoids further concentrating Black residents in majority Black wards.
Winning the New Ward 8
The concentration of Black voters is not the only consideration, however. Moving either Navy Yard or Southwest establishes a significant white population in the new Ward 8 of roughly 13%, which could have implications in future contests for the ward’s Council seat.
In the 2020 Democratic primary, voters in Ward 8 cast 8,977 ballots, while those in Ward 6 cast 18,873. The four voting precincts in Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D collectively accounted for 4,392 votes. The highest two were King Greenleaf (#127) at 1,478 and Arthur Capper Community Center (#131) at 1,353. The average voter participation was 29.27%, 11 points over Ward 8’s average.
Ward 8 has historically had the lowest voter turnout in the city, 18.13% in the 2020 Democratic primary, a national contest. In an off-cycle election with the ward’s DC Council seat not at issue, such as the 2018 Democratic primary, turnout can fall as low as 8.31%. Contrast this with Ward 6, whose percentages were 21.91 and 28.29 respectively.
In the 2020 Democratic primary, Councilmember Trayon White (D) coasted to victory with 5,062 votes, while his challengers collectively garnered a mere 3,032. Adding several thousand, highly motivated voters, many of them white, to Ward 8’s electorate would certainly alter the election dynamics.
In the end, any redistricting plan has to earn a majority on the three-member committee and then on the 13-member DC Council. Silverman has stated her intention to forge a solution worthy of support from a majority of her colleagues. It remains to be seen what part of Ward 6 will be voted off the island.
The DC Office of Planning has a handy tool for redrawing ward boundaries: https://planning.dc.gov/page/district-columbia-2021-ward-redistricting. This application enables residents to submit their maps to the Council’s Redistricting Committee. The truly motivated even have the opportunity to testify in favor of their solutions. Visit https://www.elissasilverman.com/redistricting to see the schedule.