Center Maryland: Is redistricting reform in Maryland’s future?

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Column originally published by Center Maryland on June 6, 2014

By: Donald C. Fry 

There is encouraging news emanating from this year’s election cycle for advocates of good government. It’s official: all of the major candidates from both parties are endorsing redistricting reform.

All of the prominent candidates in the Democratic and Republican primaries have voiced support for shifting the responsibility for drawing up future election districts to an independent commission and away from incumbent lawmakers who currently draw the lines for congressional and state legislative voting districts in Maryland.

This comes at a time when many experts and policy analysts are calling attention to Maryland’s shortcomings when it comes to redistricting.

Last month, the Washington Post cited Maryland among states with the most gerrymandered congressional districts.

Actually, our state isn’t just “among” the most gerrymandered states. We’re tied for first place. “Maryland and North Carolina are essentially tied for the honor of most-gerrymandered state,” writes Christopher Ingraham in thePost’s May 15 Wonkblog.

Ingraham ranked U.S. congressional districts, assigning a gerrymander index to each district based on the irregularity of district shapes.  He assigned irregularity scores to districts on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being maximum gerrymandering.

Maryland’s average score of 88 out of 100 points for convoluted congressional districts ties our state with North Carolina for the “most-gerrymandered” state, writes Ingraham.

In Maryland’s case, it’s hard to argue that assessment when one takes a look at Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, which has been called “the Praying Mantis” has a gerrymander score of 96.79 – the second- most irregular and convoluted district in the country and the worst in our state.

But Maryland also has five other congressional districts that register above 90 on the gerrymander scale. Only two Maryland congressional districts – the 5th in the southern Maryland D.C. suburbs and the 1st,which is primarily on the eastern shore, with scores of 68.38 and 84.04 respectively – score less than 90 on the gerrymander scale.

Meanwhile, here’s how major candidates for governor answered the League of Women Voters’ 2014 election questionnaire when asked what changes, if any, they would support in the process for drawing congressional and legislative district lines in Maryland.

Democrats

Anthony Brown supports the creation of an independent redistricting commission. He also notes that redistricting is a national challenge and would “support congressional action to revise redistricting standards across the country.”

“Redistricting should be about voters, not politicians,” responds Doug Gansler in voicing his support for a nonpartisan, independent commission to conduct redistricting. “Voters don’t have real choices when district lines are drawn to protect incumbents.”

“Reforming the redistricting process is long overdue,” responds Heather Mizeur, who has been a lead sponsor of redistricting reform as a member of the House of Delegates. “The process of establishing our electoral districts is too important to leave in the hands of partisan politicians.”

Republicans

Among other things, David Craig believes that the Maryland House of Delegates should consist of 141 single member districts. He favors redistricting by a non-partisan commission.

“Redistricting should never be in control of one party,” Ron George writes. “What we have now is an embarrassment.”

Larry Hogan says Maryland needs to “de-politicize” the redistricting process. He favors a “BRAC-like panel approach” to redistricting.

Charles Lollar favors a nonpartisan redistricting commission “to end political gerrymandering” and vows to work with the state legislature to accomplish it.

So there we have it.  All of the major candidates, from both political parties, who have any reasonable chance of getting elected governor this year are on the record promising redistricting reform.

What does that mean?

One thing we all know about elections in Maryland, and everywhere for that matter – it’s easy to answer election questionnaires. But once a candidate has the reins of power, the question will remain: how much political capital will the next governor be willing to expend to turn Maryland away from the established and apparently vigorously-practiced political art of gerrymandering?

The Maryland voters have spoken pretty clearly. Marylanders overwhelmingly favor redistricting reform, according to answers to a poll question placed by the Greater Baltimore Committee on the October 2013 statewide public opinion survey conducted by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.

Statewide, 73 percent of Maryland voters think having an independent commission draw up voting districts is better than the current system where elected officials redraw voting districts, while 19 percent said they think having elected officials draw up voting districts is the better approach.

Is there a more balanced approach in Maryland’s future when it comes to determining who will represent us on Capitol Hill and in Annapolis?

We’ll see. The candidates have publicly spoken on this issue. As their constituents, it is incumbent upon us to demand that the campaign pledge they make today becomes one of their key initiatives for good government tomorrow.

Maybe this new mindset is the break that we need to ensure a more balanced policy debate in the years to come in Annapolis and Washington, D.C.

don fry commentary squareDonald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

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