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TODAY’S TOPIC: At-Large Voting Under Fire In Delaware Capital

March 14, 1985

DOVER, Del. (AP) _ Residents of this state capital can register at the Kent County Board of Elections to vote in county, state and federal elections. But to vote in city elections they must register at City Hall.

In addition, although the capital has a total non-white population of 32 percent of its 22,000 residents, members of the City Council are elected on an at-large basis, diluting the voting impact of minority groups.

One City Council member, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters and local civil rights organizations have criticized Dover’s dual registration system and its at-large voting as unfair.

Cecil C. Wilson, president of the Central Delaware chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he has asked NAACP headquarters in New York for assistance in bringing a lawsuit challenging the city’s registration and voting systems.

Research conducted by students at Delaware State College showed that the political system in Dover violates the federal Voting Rights Act, according to a professor who directed the project.

″My deadline is before April 15,″ the date of the city elections, Wilson said.

″I think the data is there. The case in Cambridge (Md.) is in place. We just need to compile this and move with it,″ he said.

The U.S. Justice Department has already filed suit against Dorchester County and the county seat of Cambridge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for holding at-large elections for county commissioners and city officials.

Cambridge has been the scene of sporadic racial tension for more than a decade; blacks on the Delmarva Peninsula, which includes parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, generally have had little access to the political process.

The first black elected to a county office in Kent County, which includes Dover, was elected in 1980.The only black to serve on the Dover City Council was first appointed to a vacant seat by the mayor.

The councilman, James Hardcastle, won his first election in 1972, but was defeated for re-election last April, leaving the state capital with no black representation in city government.

Dover is divided into four election districts, with two council members per district. The districts’ populations range from 3,868 in the first district to 8,514 in the fourth district, for a total population of 21,925, according to figures compiled by the students at Delaware State College.

The research was conducted under the direction of Margaret McKay, a political science professor at the college.

The study showed Dover is 29 percent black and 3 percent ″other″ for a total non-white population of 32 percent.

Dover’s first district has only a 13 percent minority population, while minorities make up 45 percent of the population in the city’s fourth district.

″When you look at Dover’s City Council and there’s no non-white representation and only one ever, then it becomes blatantly obvious blacks are left out of the political structure of the city,″ she said. ″It’s just obvious to me the at-large election dilutes non-white participation. ″

City Council candidates must file petitions signed by residents in the district in which they reside and, if elected, must live in their districts.

But although they run for office from a particular district, they are voted for by all residents.

″We feel at-large voting does not afford representation for the minority population in Dover,″ saidMary Lou Beatman, president of the League of Women Voters of Greater Dover.

The league also contends the city needs to be reapportioned because the election districts are not equal in population and ″fair representation is not possible″ with a dual registration system, she said.

″Studies show dual registration discourages registration, in particular for those less likely to vote, mainly the elderly and minorities,″ Mrs. Beatman said.

Councilman Robin Christensen said he wants to see changes in the city charter, which has been intact since 1929.

″Right now, I feel like I might be by myself,″ he said of his efforts to get the eight-man City Council to address the issue.

Christensen and Mrs. Beatman say they feel they have been thwarted in their efforts to address the issue before the council’s Legislative and Finance Committee, chaired by Councilman Gregory Boaman.

Boaman, however, said he wants concrete information, and not someone’s opinion on the issue, before he brings it brought before the committee.

Boaman blamed Christensen for the lawsuit planned by the NAACP.

″It’s going to cost the city a lot of money to defend that suit. I think it’s very irresponsible when a city councilman’s actions spurs a lawsuit against the city,″ Boaman said.

″I think his actions were responsible in part for a lawsuit. This issue has never been so widely discussed, debated and documented in the press as it is now.″

Acting on a proposal from Mayor Crawford Carroll, the council has appointed a five-member, all-white committee to study the issue and make recommendations. The committee, however, has no deadline to report back to the council,Boaman said.

Carroll refused to comment on the Delaware State study, saying ″her opinion is one thing and the outcome of the study by the committee is something else.″