Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on CenterMaryland.org on September 19.
By Donald C. Fry
Today, a group of advocates for redistricting reform will make their point about Maryland’s now-notorious, convoluted congressional election districts in a unique way – they will run through one.
Runners will begin the inaugural “Gerrymander Meander” in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood and spend a weekend of relays wandering through Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, the map of which a federal judge once described as “a broken-winged pterodactyl lying prostrate across the center of the state.”
They will finish in Annapolis, only 35 miles away – a distance that an accomplished runner could handle in a day. But by staying strictly within the district’s boundaries, they will be forced to wander around the 3rd District for three days back and forth over 225 miles through Baltimore City and four Central Maryland counties to get to Maryland’s capital on Sunday.
The district is Exhibit A in the case being made by business leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee and other advocates across the state for Maryland to reform the way its election districts are redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census.
Maryland voters appear to overwhelmingly agree. 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. That was the dramatic response to a question placed by the GBC on the October 2013 Gonzales public opinion poll of Marylanders.
Also, reportedly in agreement is the Maryland congressman from the “pterodactyl” district itself. Democrat John Sarbanes, who represents the 3rd District, issued a statement to the Capital Gazette this week saying that he is committed to redistricting reform and supports the creation of independent state commissions to redraw the state’s election district lines.
Another Maryland Democrat in Congress, John Delaney, a first-term representative of the 6th District, in July filed a bill entitled the Open Our Democracy Act that would, in his words, “begin the process of national redistricting reform.”
Ironically, Delaney’s own election benefitted from a purposeful redistricting dip of the mostly-rural Western Maryland district into Montgomery County that was designed to help unseat an incumbent. Nevertheless, Delaney has proven to be a thoughtful, collaboration-minded and outspoken independent thinker in an otherwise gridlocked Congress.
“Our electoral process has created perverse incentives that have warped our democracy,” Delaney wrote last month in a Washington Post op-ed piece.
Gerrymandering has turned election districts into “one-party enclaves,” Delaney contends. “Not only do safe districts encourage the election of members who won’t compromise, they rely on irrational boundaries to achieve their goal.”
The fact that 19 percent of current voters in Maryland – up from 13 percent in 2001 – are not affiliated with either major party reflects an electorate that is increasingly “unhappy” with its general election options, Delaney asserts.
To put that number of unaffiliated voters in perspective, 19 percent of registered Maryland voters totals 700,000 individuals – more than the population of Baltimore City, according to state Board of Elections data. That’s a lot of disenfranchised voters.
Among other things, Delaney’s bill proposes to give independents/unaffiliated registered voters in Maryland a voice by mandating open primaries for House elections, allowing all voters to participate in one race, with the top-two vote-getters advancing to the general election. “Such a system is much more likely to send pragmatic bridge-builders to Washington,” he writes. “In an open primary, the electoral map changes, and reaching out to swing voters becomes more important.”
Delaney also proposes making Election Day a federal holiday to make it easier for more Americans to get to the polls – a step to increase voter turnout that has been declining of late.
No one inside or outside the Beltway gives Delaney’s bill any chance of passage, but it serves to advance some intriguing options for the reform-minded to consider.
Meanwhile, the tally of prominent elected officials in our state who are now publicly supporting reform of our redistricting process is growing. Besides Sarbanes and Delaney, both major party candidates for governor – Democrat Lt. Governor Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan – are solidly on the record as supporting redistricting reform.
These commitments are important because, constitutionally, only Maryland lawmakers can enact redistricting reform. And it certainly can’t happen without the support of the top elected official in the state.
Of course, the question remains: is this just election-year lip service or will commitments to reform the redistricting process endure as newly-elected leaders take office in January?
Either way, it will be important for reform advocates to keep the issues of more competitive elections and broader voter choice alive and visible after November 4.
Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.