Donald Fry: The bothersome realities of redistricting

By Donald C. Fry

Every 10 years, our nation and state undergo a fascinating exercise that is born of outward theoretical logic and professed fairness, but in practice defies all logic and is one of the most intensely political processes that our elected leaders foist upon each other and their constituents.

I’m speaking, of course, of the redistricting process.

The redistricting process starts as a straightforward mathematical exercise: take the most recent census data and tweak the boundaries of a state’s congressional and legislative election districts so that each district has an equal number of voters, plus or minus no more than five percent.

In Maryland, that means in this year’s redistricting exercise that each of the state’s eight congressional districts must be drawn to contain approximately 721,529 residents for this decade’s elections. The new General Assembly target populations are 122,813 for each of the state’s 47 state Senate districts (including three delegates), 81,875 for two-member House of Delegates districts and half that for single-member House districts.

Though governed by relatively few procedural rules either from our nation’s founders or from our state’s constitution, redistricting profoundly affects not only competition between parties for congressional office, but also the representation of jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City, in the Maryland General Assembly and neighborhoods in local councils.

U.S. Supreme Court decisions have distilled redistricting goals into two basic tenets:

  • ensure that every person’s vote is worth the same as another’s; and
  • ensure equal opportunity to elect representatives of choice in a way that does not dilute the influence of racial minorities.

For Baltimore City, one other rule came into play during the last state legislative redistricting cycle when Maryland’s Court of Appeals decreed that, in effect, the city’s election districts could not spill over into adjoining counties – limitations that don’t appear to apply to other Maryland jurisdictions. This principle applied to the current census data could result in the city losing a legislative district – a Senator and three members of the House of Delegates – due to the city’s population loss since 2000.

Maryland’s redistricting process began in July when Governor O’Malley appointed an advisory committee that is now conducting hearings around the state.

The Governor will submit congressional redistricting plans to the General Assembly for passage in a fall special session. He will submit a plan for the state’s legislative election districts at the beginning of the 2012 session. The General Assembly has 45 days to adopt an amended plan or the governor’s plan automatically becomes law.

Lawmakers are pledging an open, balanced process.

But let’s be honest – politics inherently drives redistricting activities. An ultimate irony of our democracy is that elected officials whose political careers will be directly impacted by the boundaries of districts, where votes will be cast for or against them, are the very people who get to redraw those districts.

“It’s often said that democracy is about voters choosing their politicians. But in the redistricting process, it’s politicians choosing their voters. And in many ways, those decisions can be more important than elections,” Columbia Law School Professor Nate Persily told National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm in a March interview.

It is for that reason that congressional and legislative districts frequently typify the high art of creative contiguity that current redistricting practices produce. One needs only to look at Maryland’s current Congressional districting map to appreciate the art of voter selection. One would be hard pressed to argue that the current Congressional district lines are drawn to reflect commonality of community interests rather than commonality of the district’s voting patterns.

Interestingly, other countries with parliamentary governments have devised ways for voting districts to be adjusted through processes largely insulated from political pressures, experts note. And two U.S. states – Arizona and California – have put in place independent, citizen-run commissions to perform redistricting.

Do Congressional or legislative district lines make a difference in the quality of representation that we receive in our democracy? There is no definitive answer to this question. But it can easily be argued that redistricting lines drawn in a fashion that create a district with overwhelmingly similar voting patterns or clearly dominated by one of the major political parties does not produce competitive elections, thereby depriving voters the opportunity of a real choice in their elected officials.

Surveys consistently show that a large segment of our public has grown skeptical of the intentions of our elected officials. It is widely believed that, rather than working toward the public good or solving pressing public problems, many elected representatives apply most of their energy to staying in power, as if they think they are elected for life. As a nation we have grown to grudgingly acknowledge that this is the nature of today’s politics as evidenced by the recent federal debt ceiling debate and stalemate.

What can we hope for from this year’s Congressional and legislative redistricting? The best we can hope for is that lawmakers can somehow come up with a redistricting plan that does not exacerbate the unproductive polarization and animosity that currently exists in our legislative bodies and stifles bi-partisan cooperation and compromise.

Such an outcome would certainly be a step in the right direction to restore trust among the voting public that elected officials are less interested in election survival and more committed to the cause of strong representative democracy.

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