The Daily Record: Maryland voters deserve redistricting reform

Editor’s note: The following commentary appeared on on November 15, 2018.

A federal judge once colorfully observed that the shape of one of Maryland’s congressional districts is “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

The judge was referring to Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District that includes snippets of three counties – Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard — and a swath of Baltimore city.

Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who was overwhelmingly reelected to another four-year term, describes the district’s shape in blunter terms: “I don’t know what this looks like to you, but to me, it looks like gerrymandering,” he said.

The governor, whose “Change Maryland” movement carried him into office in 2014, has been an outspoken critic of the way congressional and legislative districts are drawn in Maryland. He specifically argues that the congressional boundaries have been gerrymandered to give Democrats an edge, if not to ensure their outright victory, by diluting the votes of registered Republicans.

The reality is that the science of gerrymandering has been actively adopted by both major political parties across the country. Neither party can claim innocence in this arena of public policy.

But now with Hogan’s decisive win on Election Day he can use that mandate to make a strong case for meaningful redistricting reform while in his second term.

His reelection provides added leverage because of his opportunity to control legislative and congressional redistricting for the next decade after the 2020 census is completed. Hogan has signaled plans to press for legislation to establish a nonpartisan body to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

But if the governor is serious about an independent commission, he is going to have to convince the Democratic-controlled House and Senate to put aside partisan philosophies and accept this new approach of drawing election districts.

Over the years, elected officials of both political parties have preferred to have the redistricting power rest with them rather than an independent commission. Conversely, it is often stated by critics that the current system is unbalanced because the process allows politicians to select their constituents rather than the voters choosing their elected officials.

Public opinion favors an independent redistricting commission.

In recent years, the Greater Baltimore Committee commissioned Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies to include a question about redistricting in a statewide poll. The results showed that 73 percent of Marylanders favored an independent redistricting commission. A Goucher Poll on the same issue found the same strong sentiment.

Judicial review

The federal courts also have been scrutinizing how Maryland’s election districts are drawn.

A federal court decision issued the day after the election, Nov. 7, found that the state’s 6th Congressional District (comprised mostly of Western Maryland) is unconstitutionally gerrymandered and must be redrawn by March 7, 2019. That court ruling throws a wrinkle into the mix.

Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh has appealed the decision. If the ruling is allowed to stand, the 6th Congressional District will be redrawn but that will affect the boundaries in Maryland’s other congressional districts, too.

Hogan’s 2018 electoral mandate puts him in the driver’s seat. In 2016 when he proposed an independent redistricting commission the majority of the Democratic legislature largely ignored his plan and instead passed legislation that permitted an independent redistricting commission — but only when a number of our neighboring states elect to do so as well.

The dynamic that has changed this year is that a rejection of an independent commission by the Democratic majorities in the Maryland House and Senate places the enormous power in drawing the new congressional and legislative districts directly in the lap of Hogan.

How it might work

The creation of an independent nonpartisan commission make enormous sense provided that the body is truly independent and nonpartisan, which may be challenging in these hyper-polarized political times.

Legislators and the public are both skeptical about the prospects of creating such an unbiased commission.

A possible route to addressing that skepticism and reaching a solution would be adopting an independent commission but with phased-in implementation. A similar approach was taken in California.

Legislation would be enacted creating the independent commission but in the first election following the 2020 census, only Maryland’s eight congressional seats would be redrawn utilizing the commission. This would avoid having the new commission undertake efforts to draw 47 state legislative district boundaries. That power would be left to the governor and legislature.

Following the next decennial census (2030), the eight congressional districts and all 47 state legislative districts would be redrawn by the independent commission. This incremental approach would allow the new commission the chance to focus initially on the congressional district lines that have traditionally been criticized as the most gerrymandered while providing the public and elected officials ample time to become comfortable and confident with the independence of the commission.

With the 2018 election in the books and the 2020 census ahead, Maryland political leaders have the opportunity to lead by example on the contentious issue of gerrymandering. It’s time to get on board and adopt an independent nonpartisan redistricting process that puts voters, not politicians, first.

Donald C. Fry is President and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Record.

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