Center Maryland: Reforming Maryland’s redistricting process

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Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on February 13, 2015.

By Donald C. Fry

Leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee agree that the Number One objective for strengthening Maryland’s business climate is to get the private sector and government on the same strategic page.

While many business climate issues are currently being debated in Annapolis, there is one where the business-government consensus appears to be strong – redistricting reform.

Governor Larry Hogan’s vow in his recent State of the State address to create, by executive order, an independent bipartisan commission to reform Maryland’s redistricting process reflects a key priority for competitiveness shared by business advocates across the state.

In the 2014 election, a number of candidates from both side of the political aisle said they would support redistricting reform.

The GBC listed election district gerrymandering in its 2013 report, “Compact for Competitiveness,” among key issues that negatively impact Maryland’s ability to compete for economic growth and job creation.

The report urged elected leaders in Annapolis to consider changing the state’s Congressional and state legislative redistricting process “to cultivate more election competitiveness and a better balance of ideas that will lead to better policy solutions.”

National publications have ranked Maryland as among the nation’s most gerrymandered states for Congressional districts.

The ultimate goal of the commission Hogan is proposing will be to create a redistricting process where voters have “meaningful choices” in fair and competitive elections that provide checks and balances that “make for a more vibrant and responsive citizen republic,” he said.

In 2011, the last time Maryland went through redistricting, the process driven by lawmakers came under heavy criticism from advocates who claimed that it was conducted behind closed doors and without the appropriate level of transparency. Though numerous public meetings were held across the state, once the map showing the proposed new Congressional districts was released, the public was allowed only one week to review and comment. The final map was published without a public hearing and moved through the General Assembly very quickly.

The result was a set of election districts that national publications ranked the most “gerrymandered” in the nation. Citing a report done by geospatial software firm Azavea, Governing online magazine stated in an October 2012 article that Maryland’s new boundaries had the lowest average compactness out of any state in the nation with the 3rd and 6th Congressional districts identified as being particularly contorted. Upon reviewing the map, a federal judge who ultimately upheld the redistricting plan said Maryland’s 3rd congressional district reminded him of “a broken-winged pterodactyl.”

Despite a successful petition drive that placed the issue on the ballot, ultimately the map remained unchanged as the voters of Maryland upheld the newly-drawn districts in November 2012.

The issue of redistricting has long been a hot topic across the nation, generating an ongoing debate over who is most qualified to draw the lines in a way that is fair and bipartisan. While in the majority of states the legislature drew the lines for the 113th Congress, research suggests that the most compact districts – arguably one of the more important “good government” metrics for redistricting – were drawn by completely independent commissions or by the courts.

Following the release of Maryland’s final map, researchers offered plans that highlighted alternative means of drawing the congressional boundaries. Through a project at Columbia Law School, students used software to draw congressional districts using population guidelines without any consideration for political gain. The only political consideration that was taken into account was the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which attempts to keep the minority vote from being diluted. The project produced Maryland districts that generally coincided with county lines and left similar regions of the state intact – starkly contrasting, for example, the existing 3rd Congressional district.

In order for Maryland to have a redistricting process that is truly nonpartisan and not geared towards any party or individual political gain, it seems that the establishment of an independent commission to draw the lines is an essential prerequisite.

This commission could include individuals from different parts of the state with a variety of backgrounds, and could expressly exclude anyone who holds an elective or appointed office, any political party office, or any member of their family. The new process could be structured in such a way that the commission members are not entirely selected by the legislature, and the selection process could have oversight from a non-political government body.

Maryland voters appear to overwhelmingly agree that redistricting reform is needed.  Statewide, 73 percent of voters think having independent commissions draw up election districts is better than the current system where elected officials redraw the districts, according to their response to a question placed by the GBC on a Gonzales public opinion poll in October 2013.

Our state is a few years away from having to redraw the congressional and legislative district lines – plenty of time to study all the available research and make an informed decision about how to best ensure that our future congressional and legislative districts are drawn in the best interest of the public.

By the way, I’m not suggesting Maryland’s current legislative representatives and leaders would not be elected to serve in Annapolis or Washington, D.C., if they were to run for office in less artificially convoluted and more competitive legislative districts.

I’m simply suggesting that, in the name of creating a better political balance of ideas that will lead to better policy solutions, redistricting reform is worth a try.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.  

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