By Donald C. Fry
Private-sector leaders agree strong business climates thrive on competition – the key element that drives free enterprise.
But several CEOs who participated in a June conference hosted by the Greater Baltimore Committee to advance potential strategies to make Maryland more competitive for business growth, pointed out a significant impediment. There is a compelling lack of competition in the fundamental activity that decides who makes public policy in our state – the election process.
This lack of competition results in a political imbalance that polarizes our system and deters compromise – the foundation of good policy making.
In Maryland, the districts in which state legislators in Annapolis and members of the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill are elected to office are defined by the state lawmakers themselves. Every 10 years, lawmakers in Maryland and states across the nation engage in a redistricting exercise Bloomberg Businessweek characterizes as the crafting of an “incumbent protection plan.”
This, combined with declining turnover trends among state legislators and a fledgling movement elsewhere in the United States to dilute or eliminate state lawmaker participation in the redistricting process, suggests Maryland could enhance political balance and candidate competitiveness by re-thinking our state’s redistricting method.
Maryland’s redistricting process profoundly affects competition for congressional office, but also shapes the representation of Baltimore City and the state’s counties in the Maryland General Assembly.
“It’s often said that democracy is about voters choosing their politicians. But in the redistricting process, it’s politicians choosing their voters,” Professor Nate Persily, a nationally-recognized expert on redistricting who developed DrawCongress.org, a repository for nonpartisan congressional redistricting plans for all 50 states, said.
Lawmakers in Maryland choose their voters in particularly blatant ways, according to published assessments. For example, New Republic calls Maryland’s 3rd Congressional district “the most gerrymandered in the nation.”
The wandering, convoluted district prompted a federal judge’s oft-quoted description of it – ironically in the process of approving it – as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”
This week a rally was held in Annapolis to advocate for creating a non-partisan commission to urge that Maryland “re-think” its redistricting process, reports the Daily Record‘s Alex Pyles in his “Eye on Annapolis” blog. The rally was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Maryland, the National Council of Jewish Women Annapolis Section and Common Cause Maryland.
While much of the attention on the issue of redistricting focuses on congressional districts, academic evidence appears to bolster the impression that election processes across the United States are producing progressively less amounts of turnover in state legislatures, including Maryland’s.
Since 1971, turnover in state legislatures declined from an average 32 percent in the decade between 1971-1980 to an average of 23 percent between 1991 and 2000, according to research conducted at Boise State University and the University of Rochester.
In Maryland, combined turnover of legislators in the House of Delegates and the Senate of Maryland was 39 percent between 1971 and 1980. In the decade before 2010, the combined turnover substantially declined to 21 percent, according to analysis by the GBC.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen states have turned to some form of commission in order to “take redistricting out of the hands of state legislators who have a personal stake in the outcome,” reported Stateline, the independent news site of the Pew Charitable Trust.
States where such commissions have been created include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington.
Some of these states go to greater lengths than others to achieve independence for their redistricting commission. Some forbid elected officials from serving, while others include them, Stateline reported.
Most recently, the state that has gained attention for implementing the most aggressive method for accomplishing redistricting has been California, where voters took redistricting completely away from state lawmakers and transferred the responsibility to an independent citizens’ commission.
Maryland is not California, and voters here are not able to unilaterally petition a change in the redistricting process onto an election ballot. That was the approach taken in California. Nevertheless, it would be smart for policy advocates and forward-thinking leaders to consider ways to introduce more independence and transparency into the redistricting process. This likely would result in injecting a greater breadth of ideas into our state’s election and policy-making process as we all strive to make Maryland more competitive for business location and growth.
For me, as a business advocate, this is not about politics or individual personalities. I’m not suggesting Maryland’s current legislative representatives and leaders would not be elected to serve in Annapolis or Washington 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, it might be worth a try.