By Donald C. Fry
Poll results released last week by the Greater Baltimore Committee showing that Maryland voters overwhelmingly favor changing the way the state’s voting districts are drawn up will likely prompt hardened political observers to ask an obvious question: “So what?”
Redistricting is currently in the hands of our state’s top elected leaders and I suppose it seems silly to some to imagine these leaders would relinquish their control of such a powerful implement that defines the process by which most lawmakers are elected in Maryland.
The results of the answers to one poll question, placed by the GBC on the October Gonzales statewide public opinion poll, pretty clearly show what state voters think of that process. Elected leaders – even well-entrenched ones – pay close attention to public opinion. It will be interesting to see how, or if, they react to this poll result.
Statewide, 73 percent of Maryland voters think having independent commissions draw up voting districts is better than the current system where elected officials redraw voting districts, according to poll results. Nineteen percent said they think having elected officials draw up voting districts is the better approach and 8 percent offered no opinion.
Why is the GBC interested in the redistricting issue? Because business leaders are bringing it up. During the GBC’s day-long Chesapeake Conference of CEOs, convened last June to examine issues related to Maryland’s competitiveness, business leaders suggested alternative redistricting options be considered for Maryland.
A better redistricting process “would foster constructive competition and produce better political balance” that, in turn would promote more creative ideas that would lead to better policy solutions, business leaders said. Developing an alternative redistricting process was among the recommendations for strengthening our state’s competitiveness included in the conference’s report, Compact for Competitiveness.
The GBC asked Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies to include the following question in its highly-regarded fall poll to determine if the concept of redistricting reform has any traction among voters. Specifically, the question phone poll-takers asked 819 registered voters in Maryland was:
The U.S. Constitution requires states to create legislative voting districts and to adjust these districts every 10 years to reflect census results. In Maryland, voting districts are drawn up by the state’s elected officials. In some other states, voting districts are drawn up by independent commissions. In your opinion, which is the better approach?
The options offered to this question to the poll respondents were whether they preferred having voting districts drawn up by: a. elected officials, b. independent commissions or c. no opinion. Poll-takers rotated the order in which the answer options were presented to respondents.
Overwhelming support was expressed by respondents from all political constituencies for having independent commissions conduct the state’s redistricting process. Poll results show:
- 68 percent of Democrats favor redistricting by independent commissions, while 22 percent favor elected officials
- 78 percent of Republicans favor commissions and 17 percent favor elected officials
- 83 percent of independent voters favor commissions and 8 percent favor elected officials
Are the poll’s results a surprise? Probably not, but the intensity of across-the-board support for changing the redistricting process seems noteworthy.
Even constituents in the party firmly in power in Maryland favored – by over 40 percentage points – changing the election process that plays a major role in enabling the leaders who they have voted into power to stay in power.
Elsewhere in the United States, more attention is beginning to be paid to the redistricting issue. 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,” reports Stateline, the independent news site of the Pew Charitable Trust.
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, reports Stateline.
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. In Maryland, any type of reform in the redistricting process will have to emanate from Maryland’s elected officials – especially the top leaders in Annapolis.
The GBC recommendation that state leaders examine options for redistricting reform is not about party politics – other than its effect on redistricting – or about individual personalities in Annapolis. It’s offered as a way of genuinely nurturing an improved framework for better policy so Maryland’s economy can thrive and jobs can be created in an increasingly competitive post-recession environment. It also serves as a way to restore confidence in the political process that much of the voting public views with a skeptical eye. To the public, an independent commission is seen as good public policy and for lawmakers it is important to remember good policy makes for good politics.
Policy advocates and forward-thinking leaders should at least consider thinking about and discussing ways to introduce more independence and transparency into our state’s redistricting process, in the name of better government – not just for business owners, but for all Marylanders.