Monday, November 21, 2011

Why the Supercommittee Failed

Woodrow Wilson once observed “Congress in committee is Congress at work.” But what was once a keen observation is now little more than an anachronism describing a Congress that no longer exists.  In theory, the committee structure is crucial to a functioning Congress. By dividing the work among specialized “mini-congresses” the committee system allows Congress to become greater than the sum of its parts. Committees allow Congress to overcome the challenges of managing a diverse and numerous body through specialization and structure. Perhaps of greater import, committees offer the promise of deliberation, moderation, and compromise as a multitude of voices contribute to the crafting of legislation. In theory…

The joint select committee on deficit reduction, or supercommittee as it is commonly known, failed because it represented an attempt to return to a congressional approach to legislating that is foreign to most current members and party leaders, especially in the House of Representatives, lawmaking by committee.
In reality, the committee system in Congress has become increasingly irrelevant, especially with regard to what might be considered major or controversial legislation. Instead, most major policy decisions are made, not through a process of deliberation, but through the concerted efforts of party leadership and often with the total exclusion of not only minority party members but most of the rank and file membership of the majority party as well.
How did the committee system die? It was actually an accidental death caused by commendable efforts to open Congress and empower individual members. In the 1970s, a series of internal Congressional reforms, beginning with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970, sought to decrease the tremendous power held by committee chairs. At that time, chairmanships were determined by seniority and the most senior members came from the safest seats. For Democrats, the majority party of the time, that meant seats held by conservative Southern Democrats.  An increasingly liberal Democratic party bristled under the agenda control exercised by Southern Democrats.
In response, a series of institutional and party reforms were enacted to reign in committee chairs. Chairs were made subject to secret ballot approval, committee hearings were opened to the public, subcommittees were given autonomous control of agendas and resources, minority party members were given access to staff and resources.
The result of these reforms, however, was a Congress more difficult to manage. Though southern Democrats lost control of the agenda through committee chairmanships they could work with newly empowered and emboldened minority party Republicans to take advantage of arcane rules of debate and amendment to influence legislation.
In response, Democratic members instituted additional reforms, but rather than further empowering members the new reforms strengthened party leadership in general and the Speaker of the House specifically.  The Speaker was given the power to determine the majority party make-up of the House Rules Committee, a committee empowered to determine the rules of debate and amendment for nearly every piece of legislation brought to the floor. The appointment of committee members was turned over to a new committee mostly consisting of party leadership. The Speaker was also given the power to refer legislation to more than one committee. When Republicans claimed Congress in 1995 they continued the terk away from the committee system. The net effect of these changes was a severely neutered committee system. Committee chairs were increasingly little more than arms of the party leadership and committee consideration of legislation was increasingly more a luxury than a necessity.
The Senate is a bit different. Senate majority party leadership has much less power than House leadership, but even in the Senate committees are increasingly bypassed. Though Senate rules have long made it rather easy to bypass a committee it was once rare for committees to be bypassed. With regard to major legislation, committees were bypassed only about 7 percent of the time from the 1960s-1980s. In more recent years that has risen to over 40 percent - rivaling the House.
In both chambers, when committees are allowed to do their work, substantial postcommittee adjustment is now common. During this stage of the process, sometimes substantive changes are made to legislation after being reported by committee but before being introduced on the floor. These changes are typically made by party leadership and opportunities for full member consideration and debate are then restricted on the floor. Indeed, fully 40 percent of major legislation has been subject to such postcommittee adjustments in the House and Senate in recent years.
Increasingly, the true work in Congress is performed not by committees with expertise on the issues considered, but rather by party leadership simply pursuing a partisan agenda. It is a system where committee members and rank and file members are increasingly irrelevant in every stage of legislating except the very last stage – voting. And that voting, on major and controversial measures, is typically along party lines.
So when Congress voted to create the supercommittee with equal chamber and party membership tasked with identifying at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years, it was voting for failure. In the House, and to a lesser extent the Senate, the legislative process is dominated by majority party leaders crafting legislation that will secure bare partisan majorities. In a Congress where the House is controlled by Republicans and Senate by Democrats no supercommittee was going to succeed where majority party leadership had failed  - in crafting legislation amenable to opposing partisan majorities in each chamber. Perhaps that could have been accomplished in era when committees still mattered, but that era is a distant memory.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Occupy Maryland: Where Millionaires Play and the Working Class Pay

Congratulations Maryland! According to a story in today's Washington Post, the Free State leads the country in Millionaires. Approximately 7.22% of Marylander households are part of the exclusive millionaires club.

There are about 2.4 million households in Maryland so that translates into roughly 173,000 millionaire households. I'm glad this information was released, because the state is currently considering, and Governor O'Malley appears to be supporting, a series of proposals to increase any number of taxes - the gas tax, the flush tax, car titling and registration fees, and the auto emissions testing fee. Indeed, the one tax that O'Malley does not seem interested in increasing is the income tax.

A few months ago, O'Malley accused the GOP of "worshipping" tax cuts for the wealthy. That may be, but it's clear here in Maryland that O'Malley is happy to bow down before the alter of tax increases on the poor and working class.

Now the data on millionaires is specific to families with at least $1 million in liquid assets, but let's consider questions of income in Maryland - afterall, the higher your income, the more likely you are to accrue $1 million in liquid assets. The median household income in Maryland is $69,000 a year. Under Maryland's tax schedule, the median household would face an effective tax rate on 4.67%. A household earning between $500,000 and $1 million would face an effective tax rate of 5.2%, earn over $1 million and your effective tax rate slowly approaches a maximum of 6.25%.

Nationally, the median income is $50,000 a year. Under the current federal marginal tax rates, the median household would face a tax burden of $6,650 - an effective tax rate of 13.3%. A household earning $1 million dollars would pay $290,000 for an effective tax rate of 29%.

In Maryland, the effective tax rate imposed upon a millionaire is roughly 11% greater than the effective rate charged the median household. Nationally, the effective tax rate assessed on a millionaire is 118% greater than the rate assessed on the median household.

Compared to Maryland's current marginal income tax rates, the current federal rates (signed into law by George W. Bush) are far more progressive.

So before the state considers placing an even greater tax burden on poor and working class Marylanders, lawmakers may want to consider making the state's income tax more progressive. Perhaps the burden of supporting the state should rest more heavily on those who can best afford to support it and who best benefit from the services and stability the state provides.

As pointed out in a prior post, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the bottom 20% of wage earners pay nearly 1% of their income on excise taxes on gasoline and motor fuel alone. By contrast, the top 20% pay only 0.3% of their income on such taxes. When all federal excise taxes are considered, the proportional burden placed on the bottom 20% rises to nearly 2.8%, while the burden placed on the top 20% is only 0.5%. A 3% burden compared to a 0.5% burden... that's the very definition of a regressive tax folks.

And lest we forget, Maryland's sales tax was already increased by 20% under O'Malley's watch and an analysis conducted by the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute determined "Increasing the sales tax rate has a seven times greater impact on the lowest income families compared to the highest income families." Further with regard to state and local taxes the poorest 20 percent of Maryland families paid nearly twice as much, as a percentage of their income, in taxes as did the very richest Maryland families.

No wonder Maryland tops the nation in millionaires, what millionaire wouldn't want to live in a state with a nearly flat income tax and an increasingly regressive tax burden shifted to the poor? Who wouldn't want to tow their yacht to the Bay on roads and bridges disproportionately funded by the excise taxes and fees imposed on commuters, construction workers, single parents shuttling between school drop-offs and two part time jobs, or the unemployed driving to job interviews?

Perhaps the thinking is millionaires can pack up and move if their taxes are increased, but the poor are stuck here and will have no choice but too stay and pay? That's certainly not progressive thinking. Perhaps it's time to occupy Annapolis?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Peter Franchot, the Progressive Conservative

I continue to be impressed with Comptroller Peter Franchot and his maneuvering toward the 2014 gubernatorial contest. With the redistricting "battle" behind us and the special legislative session of the General Assembly adjourned, all attention has shifted to the upcoming regular session and the question of tax increases. A panel convened by Governor O’Malley and tasked with identifying new revenue streams to pay for transportation infrastructure improvements has endorsed a $0.15 a gallon increase in the state's gas tax, they also endorsed significant increases in automobile titling and registration fees and a doubling of the vehicle emissions inspection fee. Not to be outdone, A state task force is considering doubling and then tripling the state's so-called "flush tax" from its current $30 per year to $90 by 2015.

In response to these proposals, Franchot has called for a two year freeze on all new taxes and fees to “give businesses and consumers time to catch their breath.”

A few months ago, Franchot made headlines arguning Maryland needed to be less reliant on the federal sector for job creation. I argued at the time that it was a smart move and showed Franchot was trying to position himself as the conservative option in a Democratic gubernatorial primary that is likely to feature two well-known, and progressive, Democrats - Attorney General Doug Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.

Democrats' routinely win about 60% of the statewide vote so winning the Democratic primary is a doorway to the governorship. Gansler is an unabashed liberal and Brown, the state's first African-American Lt. Governor and an accomplished legislator with an impressive resume, will undoubtedly lay an early claim to the significant African-American vote.  So Gansler and Brown will split two of the most reliable segments of the Democratic primary voting population - liberals and African-Americans.

This creates an opening for a moderate to conservative Democrat to lay claim to white, moderate and conservative Democrats, of whom there are many in Maryland.

But the situation is even better for Franchot. The three Democratic power centers in Maryland are Baltimore City, Montgomery county, and Prince Georges county. Democrats routinely lose most of the other counties in the state, but win those population centers. In a primary contest, a candidate who could claim those regions would be unbeatable - but if they are divided then the state's remaining, and far more conservative counties, become crucial.  Brown hails from Prince Georges county and if he is able to consolidate the African-American vote then he is likely to claim Prince Georges county and Baltimore City - much as Kweisi Mfume did in the 2006 Senate primary against Ben Cardin. Cardin bested Mfume by winning Montgomery county, Baltimore county and Anne Arundel county by nearly 2-to-1 margins.

Gansler and Franchot are from Montgomery county and both have held elective office there. They would likely split the county's vote. If one were to return to the 2006 Senate primary, a cursory review of election results would seem to suggest that Gansler and Franchot splitting the vote outside of Baltimore City and Prince Georges county would benefit Brown. But the 2006 Senate primary was missing something, something Franchot is looking to bring to the 2014 gubernatorial contest - a moderate/conservative option for Democratic primary voters. In 2006, Democratic turnout in more conservative counties (Allegheny, Carroll, Frederick, Washington) was below overall turnout. If Franchot offers moderate and conservative Democrats a reason to vote in a primary contest there is reason to suspect that turn-out in more conservative parts of the state would increase - this presents Franchot with his path to victory.

The greatest obstacle to Franchot would be the entry into the race of another moderate/conservative Democrat - like Howard county Executive Ken Ulman. Not only would Ulman lay claim to Howard county's crucial bloc of voters, he would divide the moderate/conservative primary vote. If that were to be the case, Brown would cruise to victory.

Franchot has one path to the nomination and it requires an undivided appeal to the state's sizeable bloc of moderate and conservative Democrats. His opposition to new tax increases stakes an early claim to those voters and is a wise move.

That said, there is cause for progressives to rally behind him as well. All of the tax increases currently being debated are incredibly regressive taxes that will disproportionately harm low-income and working class families. Raising taxes on gas and increasing fees for auto registration is not like raising the cigarette tax - people can simply decide to stop smoking to avoid that tax. But there is no substitute for gas and in most parts of Maryland public transportation is not an option. Worse, in a weak economy, people have to take jobs wherever they can find them and in a weak housing market they cannot simply sell their home and move to where jobs may be - so they need to drive to work and sometimes they need to drive a considerable distance (especially if you live in rural areas... conservative, rural areas). For low-income and working class families, cars and gasoline are not conveniences, they are crucial lifelines.

That the Governor and the General Assembly would even consider such a regressive assault on the economic well-being of working families is unconscionable. Democrats raising taxes and fees on working families is no less egregious than Republican attempts to cut services to these folks. But Democrats are avoiding more progressive forms of taxation and targeting the poor for the same reason Republicans refuse to consider tax increases for the wealthy and cut programs for the poor - the wealthy vote, but turn-out drops sharply as income levels fall.

Of course the counter argument would be that the new taxes and fees would effect everyone, rich and poor alike. But the poor lose a much greater share of their income to excise taxes and fees. Although state and county-level data is difficult to obtain, federal tax data does demonstrate the regressive nature of excise taxes in general and on fuel specifically. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bottom 20% of wage earners pay nearly 1% of their income on excise taxes on gasoline and motor fuel alone. By contrast, the top 20% pay only 0.3% of their income on such taxes. When all federal excise taxes are considered, the proportional burden placed on the bottom 20% rises to nearly 2.8%, while the burden placed on the top 20% is only 0.5%. A 3% burden compared to a 0.5% burden... that's the very definition of regressive folks.

Franchot's latest smart move is doubly smart - it appeals to more conservative minded Democrats by calling for greater fiscal responsibility AND it may play well with true progressives offended by the state's attempt to balance its books on the backs of the poor.

Well played Mr. Franchot.

Friday, October 14, 2011

O'Malley's Amazing Opportunity

Martin O'Malley has decided to ask African-American voters to wait at least another decade for fair representation in Maryland... and apparently African-American leaders are ready to give up and say "thank you." At least Donna Edwards had the courage to protest, and hats off to the folks who walked out on the caucus capitulation meeting...

So when asked to choose between creating a third majority-minority district or creating a marginally Democratic district in Western Maryland, O'Malley decided that the mere chance of electing another white Democrat mattered more than boosting minority representation in Congress. So much for people asking Andrew Cuomo who?

Original Post:
Just last night I wrote that I did not envy Martin O'Malley and the choice he needs to make in the state redistricting battle.

Well that was so yesterday... O'Malley has just been presented with a golden opportunity to win and win big. Just as minority groups increased the pressure on presidential aspirant O'Malley to create a third majority-minority district in Maryland and on gubernatorial aspirant Doug Gansler (State Attorney General) to not support the legality of the proposed map (under a Voting Rights challenge) word comes that Marylanders for Marriage Equality will make a push for marriage equality legislation during next week's special session of the General Assembly.

Whether they realize it or not, Marylanders for Marriage Equality may have solved O'Malley's redistricting problem and delivered a big boost to his presidential aspirations. The real test will be whether O'Malley is ready to deal.

Marriage equality legislation died in the House of Delegates last Spring largely due to opposition from African-American community leaders and delegates in the Prince Georges and Montgomery County area - the same folks angry about the proposed redistricting map.

O'Malley needs to make the following deal:

He needs to propose a new map that creates a third majority-minority district in the Montgomery/Prince Georges region. In exchange for the new map, African-American leaders agree not to oppose marriage equality legislation and area senators and delegates agree to support the bill during the special session. This is a good deal for O'Malley and for the African-American community.

O'Malley scores a significant victory in the fight for marriage equality, earning him the respect of national Democratic party leaders and party activists (also known as donors and primary voters). African-American delegates and senators as well as community leaders score a victory as well, by agreeing to support a measure that in no way harms their communities they likely gain a new African-American member of Congress.

So what's the downside?  Creating a third majority-minority district would mean restoring the 6th Congressional district to a Republican district. The 330,000 Montgomery County voters that were to be added to the 6th would be removed and the voters in Frederick and most of Carroll county would be put back. This frees O'Malley to reconfigure the 8th congressional district. Presently, the 8th district is 37% minority, under the current proposal it would fall to 25% minority. O'Malley could restore the minority voters to the 8th, add additional voters from the 5th Congressional district (in exchange for some Anne Arundel voters currently in the 4th), and in pretty short order turn the 8th district into a majority-minority district.

Proposed Redistricting Map

This does mean that O'Malley would fail to deliver a new House seat to the Democratic party, harming their quest to reclaim the majority. But no party leader would hold that against him. No party activist would view this as a bad deal. In fact, O'Malley would likely earn tremendous respect for being willing to cut such a deal to secure marriage equality. What Democrat could possibly be upset over the twofer of marriage equality and increased minority representation?

Additionally, one can imagine a future debate where O'Malley decries the Republican party's petty partisanship and points out that while Republicans were engaging in egregious acts of gerrymandering in Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere O'Malley rose above the partisan fray and put the interests of the people of his state ahead of all other considerations.

I have been critical of O'Malley for what often seems a lack of bold leadership and risk taking - with this deal all of that past criticism would fall away. If O'Malley can strike this deal he would demonstrate that he is not only ready for prime time, but that he'll be must see TV in the quest for 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.  If he pulls this off, people will start asking Andrew Cuomo who?

(An important side note - the one loser in all of this would be Chris Van Hollen. Van Hollen is a rising star in the Democratic party, but he would likely lose his district. But any effort to create a new majority-minority district would imperil one of the state's incumbent Democrats - this is simply unavoidable. Of course, Van Hollen may want to consider 2016 and the possibility of an open Senate seat.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

O'Malley's Lament

I do not envy Martin O'Malley. As chair of the Democratic Governor's Association and presidential aspirant O'Malley is under tremendous pressure to deliver at least one new Democratic House seat to bolster his party's chances of reclaiming the House of Representatives in 2012. The map proposed by his Redistricting Commission bowed to that national pressure.

But the only way to create 7 Democratic districts in Maryland (a state where Republicans routinely win 40% of the statewide vote and dominate every region of the state except central Maryland) is to take the substantial African-American vote in Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince Georges County and use those voters to dilute the Republican areas of the state. There is clear evidence of this in the recently proposed map.

Baltimore City voters are used to offset Republican votes in Baltimore County, Howard County, Harford County and Anne Arundel County. Montgomery County voters offset western Maryland (and Anne Arundel, and Baltimore County) and Prince Georges voters dilute Southern Maryland (and Anne Arundel).

This is an effective way to gerrymander a state, but the result is reduced minority voting power. Maryland's population is over 40% minority, but only two of the state's eight Congressional districts are majority-minority (the 4th and 7th). Even though the minority population has grown in the past decade, the new map would not create any additional majority-minority districts. Worse, it would weaken minority voting strength in five districts. Minority vote strength in the two majority-minority districts (the 4th and 7th) would decline slightly and in the 8th district minority vote strength would fall dramatically from roughly 37% to around 25% - all a result of the gerrymandering needed to turn Roscoe Bartlett's red 6th district marginally blue.  The 6th district goes from being 10% minority to 22% minority. 

Maryland's 1st district would be 15% minority, the 2nd 37% minority, the 3rd 29% minority, and the 5th 44% minority.

But African-American community leaders in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties are not happy with the manner in which the minority population has been divided and used to create Democratic districts. It's a sad reality of American politics that minority candidates, especially African-American candidates, are rarely elected from non majority-minority districts. So all of those districts with 29%, 37% or 44% minority membership simply rely on minority voters to elect white Democrats.

Given Maryland's population and the geographic concentration of minority voters, the state should be home to at least 3, if not 4, majority-minority districts. In light of that, it's easy to understand why minority community leaders are upset with consolation prize of two districts.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevents redistricting that disadvantages minority voters and weakens their political power - based on that, some community leaders have threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the proposed map. The problem for O'Malley is the simple fact that you cannot create 3 or 4 majority-minority districts in Maryland without creating 2 or 3 Republican districts as a byproduct. You can either have more Democrats, but fewer minority representatives or more minority representatives, but fewer Democrats.

This brings us to the other pressure on O'Malley. O'Malley wants to be President - there can be little doubt about that. But to build a foundation for a presidential run, he needs a record of accomplishment as governor - this has eluded him thus far. O'Malley has been a competent and responsible manager of the state, but he needs a record of legislative accomplishment. O'Malley has chosen to take more risks in the coming legislative session by endorsing high profile issues like marriage equality. Marriage equality died in the prior legislative session when an odd alliance of African-American delegates, conservative Democrats, and Republicans joined to kill the measure.

As a voting bloc, African-American senators and delegates wield tremendous power in the General Assembly, and their opposition to O'Malley's agenda (coupled with Assembly Republicans and conservatives) could make the difference between a failed or successful second term. O'Malley knows this. As such, he cannot afford to ignore the rising tide of opposition to the map proposed by his advisory commission.

O'Malley faces a difficult choice - does he represent the interests of the national Democratic party and deliver them an additional seat in Congress (and risk alienating a key party voting bloc in Maryland) or does he represent the interests of the people of Maryland a present a map that respects the growing minority presence in the state (and risk alienating national party leaders whose support he will need if he runs for president).

In his speech before the 2004 Democratic convention O'Malley said "to govern is to choose." Today, he faces a very difficult choice and his decision will likely tell us much about his ambition and whether his focus remains on Maryland or his future plans. And he must decide soon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

In Maryland, the "Gorrell Map" Deserves Public Consideration

The Congressional Redistricting Plan of 2012 will be scheduled to be heard before the joint hearing of the Maryland General Assembly's Senate Committee on Reapportionment and Redistricting and House Rules and Executive Nominations on Monday, October 17th at 1 pm. The public is welcome to testify. Though I have prepared a rough draft of a map, I have not prepared a precinct specific map that would be available for consideration and adoption.

Rather I am encouraging members of the Assembly and the public to give serious consideration to a map prepared by the only Maryland citizen (other than the commission members) to have attended every meeting of the Governors' Redistricting Advisory Commission. The man is Howard Gorrell. As reported by various news outlets:
Gorrell’s message from first to last was fairly simple: No gerrymandering. No drawing of lines for political gain.

Election districts should be compact, and they should follow geographic and natural boundaries, he maintained. Counties should be kept whole and not cut up. And when parts of other counties must be added to make the population equal, he proposed adding clusters of high schools and their feeder schools.

Under Gorrell’s proposal, the 1st Congressional District would include 10 counties from Worcester north to Harford, and adding the Hereford school district in Baltimore County. The 6th would head east from Garrett to Carroll, with three school clusters added from Montgomery County. The 2nd would include almost all of Baltimore County, and the 3rd would encompass the entire Baltimore City, plus clusters in the county.
Using a Census numbers, precinct-specific data, a calculator, and a magnifying glass Gorrell designed a new district map of Maryland that I believe truly represents the diversity of the state - his decision to rely on school district as the basic unit of "community" represents a true understanding of the building blocks of neighborhoods and common ground.

District-specific details for Gorrell's proposal are available at the following links:


Third Party Submission:

A full-state map was not available, but below is quick snapshot of Gorrell's eight districts.

By now, it should be clear that there is a growing chorus of opposition to the Redistricting Commission's proposed map of Maryland - and the most vocal opposition is not coming from Republicans. As reported by the Washington Post, "Montgomery County Council Democrats find Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed gerrymandering of their home turf so outrageous that they are publicly coming out against it." The Post is even running a "Name that District" constest in honor of the ridiculous 3rd Congressional District. And Capital reporter Eric Hartley attempted to drive the 3rd district - only discover that you cannot - "When you design districts for politics, not because you're trying to include major population centers or be geographically consistent, this is what you're left with: a district that includes boarded-up rowhouses in south Baltimore and million-dollar mansions in Howard County."
The Gorrell map deserve to receive public consideration and I hope that it does. It's an impressive proposal and, quite frankly, puts the Redistricting Committee's proposal to shame (then again, spilling a bottle of ink on a map of Maryland is likely to produce a map better than the Commission's).

The Gorrell proposal differs from my own in many ways, but I think that he has captured Maryland just as well - whereas I tried to keep counties together at all costs, Gorrell opted to cross county lines when justified and necessary. His use of school districts was a great way to keep community connections intact even when crossing county lines.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Race, Redistricting, and a More Reasonable Option?

Update: Please take a moment to tell the Redistricting Commission what you think of their proposal.

Update 2: I tip my hat to the Montgomery County Council for standing up to Governor O'Malley and opposing his gerrymandered mess.
African-American leaders in Maryland are quite justifiably concerned with the recently released Congressional redistricting map prepared by the Governor's Redistricting Commission. As drawn, Maryland will continue to have only two majority-minority districts - the 4th and 7th - and each is likely to have fewer African-American voters.

Though African-Americans compose 30% of the state's population they are heavily concentrated in Baltimore City and county, Montgomery county, and Prince Georges county - combined these four regions are home to 78% of the African-American population (add Charles county and that rises to 82%). With regard to the total population of the state, those four counties are home to only 56% of the state's residents.

The concentrated nature of the African-American population creates a problem for Democrats when redistricting - African-Americans are the most reliable Democratic voting bloc, but the concentration in the central part of the state makes it difficult to offset more conservative voters in western, southern and northern Maryland and on the eastern shore.

The only way to dilute those areas is to create districts that divide the African-American communities and join them with sometimes far-flung conservative areas. In the proposed map (below) one can see that this has been done in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th districts. Baltimore City's 620,000 residents are divided among 3 congressional districts - they help to create the majority-minority 7th congressional district, but "surplus" voters are then used to dilute more conservative suburbs in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and rural areas of Harford and Baltimore counties. In the last gubernatorial election Democratic incumbent Martin O'Malley won Baltimore city by a margin of 82% to 16% over Republican Bob Ehrlich.  The two split the Baltimore county vote. In Anne Arundel, Ehrlich won 54% to 43% and in Harford he won 65% to 34%.

A single, compact and cohesive majority-minority district could be created by by joining all of Baltimore City with its southwest suburbs in Baltimore county - home to much of the county's African-American population. But the results from 2010 gubernatorial election demonstrate why this was not an acceptable option. Republican voters in the surrounding communities needed to be offset. Baltimore City is divided across 3 districts and divided solely for that purpose.  To further dilute probable Republican voters Baltimore and Anne Arundel county are divided across 4 districts and Harford across 2.

Proposed Congressional District Map from Redistricting Commission

Prince Georges county, home to 840,000 Marylanders, including 560,000 African-American residents is divided among the 4th and 5th districts. The 4th district is a majority-minority district oddly joined with Anne Arundel county. In the most recent gubernatorial election in Maryland, Prince Georges county voted for O'Malley by a margin of 88% to 11% over Ehrlich. Prince Georges county is over 60% larger than Anne Arundel and with the more Republican Anne Arundel county divided among 4 districts Democratic voters, mostly African-American, from Prince Georges county and Baltimore City neutralize the Republican strength there.

Given the size of Prince Georges county and the large surplus of Democratic votes there, it is then used to dominate the 5th district - home to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (someone I'm proud to have as my representative in Congress). Charles county voted for O'Malley by a 2-to-1 margin over Ehrlich, but Ehrlich won Calvert and St. Mary's (as well as Anne Arundel) handily. Anne Arundel, Calvert, and St. Mary's counties could form a single congressional district positioned on the western shore of the Bay - but it would be a Republican district.

Montgomery county, with 950,000 residents, voted 68% to 31% for O'Malley and is divided across 3 districts. The 6th congressional district currently includes all of western Maryland, Frederick and Carroll counties, and northern Baltimore and Harford counties. Ehrlich won all of those counties in 2010 and carried the district 62% to 33%.

To counter that Republican advantage, the new map drops most of Frederick county as well as all of Carroll and the sections of Baltimore and Harford counties from the district. They are replaced with a sizable chunk of Montgomery county to create a marginally Democratic district. Much of the rest of Montgomery county is then used to offset the addition of Frederick and Carroll county to the 8th district - with a smidge of Montgomery going to the 3rd district as well.

The net effect of all of this being a new congressional map that will yield 7 Democratic members of Congress (including 2 African-American members) and 1 Republican. Not bad for a state where Republicans routinely receive about 40% of the statewide vote.

But it comes at a cost to minority voters. Not only could Baltimore City and its immediate suburbs form a single majority-minority district, the three DC area counties of Montgomery, Prince Georges, and Charles are home to 46% of the state's African-American population. There is nearly equal divide between African-American and white voters among the three counties, but they are also home to 64% of the state's fast growing Hispanic population - providing a distinct advantage to minority candidates. And that advantage matters as it is a sad but true reality in America that African-American candidates are rarely elected from non majority-minority districts.

Montgomery, Prince Georges, and Charles county could occupy 3 congressional districts - possibly creating 2, or perhaps 3, majority-minority districts in the region. Coupled with the Baltimore City/suburbs region Maryland's Congressional delegation would be home to 3, and quite possibly 4, members of the state's minority population - a reasonable number given that Maryland's population is 40% minority.

The 1st congressional district would encompass the eastern shore and Harford county (and the Hereford zone school district in northern Baltimore County). The sixth congressional district would extend to Carroll county and incorporate bordering neighborhoods on western Baltimore county and north western Howard county as needed to achieve equal population sizes. The rest of Baltimore and Howard county would join in a district (with some of southern Howard joining the Montgomery, Prince Georges, Charles grouping).

Such an approach would also undo the gerrymandered mess created in 2002 and made worse under the current proposal and folks need to stop pretending that the proposed map is not gerrymandered - of course it is. Just look at the new 3rd district (below) and read the related story - and then ask, why is the only available map of the 3rd district a map prepared by the press? Why did the committee refuse to include a map of the 3rd district in its presentation? The answer seems clear - because it's a gerrymandered and indefensible nightmare and its inclusion would then draw attention to the very questionable nature of the other districts.

Maryland's New 3rd District
According to Senate President and advisory committee member Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) "Congressman Sarbanes lived in Baltimore County, but wanted to continue to represent the capital city Annapolis." This of course is the root of the problem. In a democracy, the people are supposed to go to the polls and select their representative. Under the process just completed, the Redistricting Commission let the representatives select their constituents. But of course not all representatives were afforded such an accommodation. I doubt Roscoe Bartlett asked to have his district fundamentally reconfigured and I suspect any request to keep Frederick and Carroll counties would have been ignored. Essentially, Miller confessed to partisan gerrymandering.

Miller's peculiar statements continued as he argued "Maryland is a small state ... and it doesn’t have many rural, conservative areas that would vote for Republicans that could comprise a district of 700,000 people." This is of course wrong, especially if you include the suburban areas that Republicans often carry. Has Miller reviewed election returns from Baltimore county? Garrett, Allegheny, Washington, Frederick and Carroll counties? St. Mary's, Calvert, and Anne Arundel county? The entire Eastern shore and Harford county? The reason the proposed map is so gerrymandered is because Maryland is full of regions that would and do vote Republican and these regions surround four counties and Baltimore City that vote Democratic. Democrats are the clear majority party in Maryland - but its hardly a one party state.

Finally, Miller defended the proposed map, arguing "the change is quite modest." It's hard to reconcile that claim with the fact that only 174,000 Marylanders actually needed to be moved in order to create districts with equal populations. The Commission's plan would move over 1.5 million Marylanders - nearly a third of the state's residents.

But, if the Commissioners are open to a moving 1.5 million people to balance out 174,000 why not consider a radical idea - a map that actually represents Maryland.

Below is a very rough depiction of what a more reasonable and representative map might look like (note that the final boundaries would shift a little to balance out district sizes and to maximize minority representation in the 4th, 7th, and 8th districts - but this is essentially a map with 8 roughly equal districts).

Eberly Concept Redistricting Map
 All remnants of past gerrymandering would be gone. I'd also point out that this map intentionally fails to consider whether current incumbents would be redistricted out of their districts - for one simple reason - congressional districts belong to the people and not to a member of Congress.

The map that I've developed and just described would create a Congressional delegation of 4 Democrats (3rd, 4th, 7th and 8th) and 3 Republicans (1st, 5th, and 6th). The 2nd District would be a swing district (O'Malley carried Howard county by 10 points) likely leaning Democratic as the more conservative areas in Howard and Baltimore counties are in the 6th district. Howard and Baltimore are two counties that should be divided over more than one district given there very diverse demographics (a reflection of their central location), but this requires careful slices, not zig-zag slicing and dicing.

As I've demonstrated in the past, Maryland is a 60/40 Democrat/Republican state - a 5/3 Democrat/Republican delegation would be 62.5% Democrat and 37.5% Republican.  The state's geographic, political, and ethnic diversity would be more accurately represented. Minority voters would no longer be denied the opportunity to maximize representation and Maryland would have a map that lets voters pick the best person to represent their communities - as opposed to the current practice in which representatives pick the communities and voters most likely to vote for them.

I of course realize that my proposal or any similar proposal would go no where. The Democratic and Republican parties are engaged in a heated battle to pick up or protect seats anywhere the can. Maryland is one of the few states where redistricting is controlled by the Democrats and there is no way the party would accept a map that would elect more Republicans.

But a redistricting process that is based entirely on maximizing partisan advantage, regardless of the true diversity of a state, undermines the whole concept of representation. It renders the House of Representative nothing more than a tool of the two parties rather than a microcosm of the people. So far, 7 states have abandoned partisan redistricting. In California, the gerrymandering was so bad that in the span of a decade out of 53 congressional seats, across 5 elections (that's 265 distinct elections) there was only one instance (1/265 = 0.38%) when a seat changed parties. That's not democracy. With the state's newly drawn (non-partisan) map, fully 14 of the state's 53 seats are toss-ups - from 0.38% across a decade to possibly 26% in a single election - that's change we can believe in.

In his new book, The Price of Civilization, Jeffrey Sachs rightly describes America not as a democracy but rather as a duopoly controlled by the two parties. It is managed competition in which Democrats have drawn their way to a floor of about 195 seats in the House and Republicans about 185. It is a world where 380 of the House's 435 seats are not competitive. A century ago the progressive movement stood for the end to the corruption of government, it sought to break the hold of party machines and bosses, it sought to return integrity to the political system. The movement needs to rediscover its roots. We need to move beyond the short term obsession over whether a given choice or change helps or hurts Democrats or Republicans and instead focus on the long term objective of doing what is needed to maintain the health and vitality of our democracy. An end to partisan gerrymandering would be a good start (then we can follow that up by ending closed primaries and enacting public financing of campaigns).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

St. Mary's College to Host Screening of "Gerrymandering" Documentary

On Wednesday, October 12, St. Mary's College of Maryland will host a screening of the award winning documentary "Gerrymandering." The film will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Professor Susan Grogan and me - Professor Todd Eberly.

The film, released in 2010, discusses the history and ethics of redrawing electoral district lines in order to give one party an advantage. “Gerrymandering, the act of drawing district lines strictly for partisan advantage, subverts representation and subjugates the interests of the people to the interests of political parties,” said Eberly.

The issue is a hot topic in Maryland, where a special session of the Maryland General Assembly will soon convene to consider a new congressional map drawn by a task force appointed by Governor Martin O’Malley.

I  have been very critical of the newly proposed map as well as the practice of partisan gerrymandering in Maryland and other states - and will explain why and take audience questions.

The event is free and open to the public.

The film screening begins at 4:40 and the discussion at 6PM.

The event will be held in Cole Cinema in the Campus Center.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Redistricting Commission Releases Proposed Map

Update: Want to learn more about gerrymandering and ask me questions? Come to St. mary's College on October 12 for a screening of the documentary "Gerrymandering."

The Redistricting Commission has officially released its map - as shown below, the proposed map is a variation of Option 1, as detailed in a prior post and in the Washington Post.

Democrats appear to have abandoned plans to target both the 1st and 6th congressional districts and have opted instead to target only the 6th and to make the 1st even more solidly Republican - a common tactic in Gerrymandering.

Prior to this map, Maryland was home to two of the most egregious examples of gerrymandering in the nation: the 2nd and 3rd congressional districts. If adopted, the newly drawn 4th, 7th and 8th will join their ranks. Though hard to imagine, the 3rd district has actually been made worse (which likely explains why it was the only district for which no close-up maps have been provided). The new 3rd district would travel through Anne Arundel county, along the shore of the Chesapeake Bay down to Gibson Island, then jump across the water to connect with Annapolis. I hope the district's representative, John Sarbanes, owns a boat.

With this map, Martin O'Malley has made Maryland the Texas of the Democratic party... but I doubt the Justice Department will consider any challenges to Maryland's map.

In a particularly amusing quote, Senate President and advisory committee member Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said that overall, "the change is quite modest." He added that "the map is much more aesthetically pleasing" and "we did the very best we could to try to reach a consensus."

By consensus he means the committee's four Democrats agreed to a map that further denies representation to the 40 percent of the state that routinely votes Republican. The token Republican on the committee voted against the map.

The Committee's presentation is full of often amusing attempts to explain the districts. Note that district 2's scattershot design was simply intended to represent BRAC communities... and, apparanetly, Owings Mills and Randallstown on the western side of Baltimore... The newly drawn 6th congressional district is described as representing the growing population along the I-270 corridor - I'm certain the voters in rural Garrett county are happy to know that the are part of the I-270 corridor.

The committee attempted to present the new map as a vast improvement, but one need look no further than a close-up of how Baltimore City has been carved up to see that nothing was improved.

The committee could have done so much better. The best I can say is that it also could have done much worse. One can only hope that the members abandoned so-called "Option 2" plan, designed to produce a congressional delegation with eight Democrats and no Republicans, because they realized that it was simply too brazen and too insulting to the voters of the state.

So here's my take on the proposal: It's not as brazen and as insulting as it could have been, but it's still plenty of both.

Now can we please amend the state constitution and make this a nonpartisan process?

I'm a Marylander for Marriage Equality

Need I say more?

In Maryland, A New Push for Marriage Equality will Face Old Foes... and Friends

The Washington Post is reporting that the group Marylanders for Marriage Equality will soon launch a new web campaigned aimed at winning over support for same-sex marriage legislation during the state's next legislative session in early 2012.  Mimicking a similar, and seemingly successful, ad campaign in New York, the new web ads will feature high profile folks offering their support for marriage equality.

As reported in the Post:
"Organizers insist the web campaign is only loosely patterned on that of New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) pushed a same-sex marriage bill through the legislature in June. About 50 of the 30-second videos were produced in the run-up to the votes there."
But certainly they are hoping for a similar outcome.

Legislation legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland has been passed by the Maryland House of Delegates in the past - only to die in the more conservative state Senate. In 2011, however, the Senate provided a shock to the system by passing the bill by a margin of 25-21. When faced with the reality of casting a vote that would legalize same-sex marriage, several former supporters in the House of Delegates succumbed to pressure (largely from religious groups) and an odd coalition of Republicans, conservative Democrats, and African-American delegates effectively killed the bill.

After receiving criticism for standing on the sidelines during much of the debate, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley recently announced his support for marriage equality and his intention to sponsor a bill in the 2012 legislative session.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have openly and frequently and passionately expressed my support for marriage equality and have criticized O'Malley for his lack of support in the past - and I would appear in a web ad supporting marriage equality if ever asked - but I am not convinced that the 2012 legislative session will be any more amenable to legalizing same-sex marriage and I worry that the web ads could serve to mobilize a backlash.

The General Assembly is currently reeling from the highly successful petition effort to halt the Maryland Dream Act and I do not see members of the Assembly eager to face another public repudiation.

Additionally, I think the Senate may be a less friendly place for the legislation in 2012. During a recent conversation with a Maryland state Senator (who shall remain nameless) I was told that several Senators who had previously voted "Yes" in 2011 are under significant pressure to vote "No" in 2012 - and a few of them have indicated that they are leaning toward voting "No." Two defections would produce a tie, three would kill the bill - only 19 votes are needed to filibuster.

When asked whether O'Malley's support would be sufficient to ensure passage of the marriage equality bill, the Senator simply replied "O'Malley is no Cuomo."

The American public has moved in the direction of supporting same-sex marriage, Marylanders for MArriage Equality have lined-up an impressive group of allies - especially Tessa Hill-Alston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. Only time will tell if it will be enough to overcome the deeply entrenched opposition that worked so effectively and quickly to defeat the measure in 2011.

Stay tuned...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Maryland Redistricting Plan is an Affront to Representative Democracy

Looking for my map? Check it out here.

Update: Want to learn more about gerrymandering and ask me questions? Come to St. Mary's College on October 12 for a screening of the documentary "Gerrymandering."

At the height of the national debate over raising the debt ceiling, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley wrote a column for the Huffington Post in which he excoriated the Tea Party and Republicans in Congress.
"Over the past few weeks, we've seen divisiveness and political gamesmanship like we've never seen before. We've seen a new wing of the Republican party emerge with one goal and one goal only and that is to defeat President Obama in the upcoming election -- even if it means killing the jobs recovery and risking our country's financial stability."
Indeed, since becoming chair of the Democratic Governors' Association O'Malley has frequently criticized the GOP for placing party before country and for being partisan hostage takers - willing to risk our nation's very future in an effort to defeat President Obama in 2012.

I happen to think that much of O'Malley's criticism of the GOP and the Tea Party, though a bit hyperbolic, was often correct.

Unfortunately for O'Malley, recent events suggest that he is every bit as partisan and unconcerned with the health of our democracy as are the Republicans he so often criticizes.

As reported by the Washington Post, O'Malley's Redistricting Commission appears to have settled on two possible options for redrawing Maryland's congressional districts (see below). Each map represents no less than an assault on the very concept of democratic representation. Each map represents an act of puerile political cowardice drawn for the express purpose of suppressing the will of the people in the state of Maryland.

With these maps Governor O'Malley appears ready to embrace divisiveness and political gamesmanship with one goal and one goal only and that is to help Democrats reclaim the House of Representatives in 2012 - even if it means effectively disenfranchising four in ten Marylanders and risking our country's future by exacerbating the problem of polarized politics.

Simply stated, the O'Malley plans (as reported by the Washington Post) seek to alter Maryland's current Congressional delegation of six Democrats and two Republicans and create a delegation that is seven Democrats to one Republican, or, under a particularly egregious plan, eight Democrats.

As I demonstrated in a prior post, talk of Maryland being a two-to-one Democrat over Republican state often ignores the fact that Democrats represent only 56% of the state's registered voters - a clear majority, but hardly indicative of a one party state. More important than voter registration statistics, my analyses of statewide and district-specific elections showed that the Free State's growing bloc of unaffiliated voters vote overwhelmingly for Republicans. In truth, Maryland is not a two-to-one Democratic state - it is a 60/40 Democratic state - so more like 1.5-to-1. It makes sense that Democrats routinely win all statewide races, but they have regional weaknesses on the eastern shore, southern and western Maryland and in northern Baltimore and Harford counties.

If one were to apply the 1.5-to-1 ratio to the state's eight-seat congressional delegation the split would be five Democrats and three Republicans. The current six-to-two split is not too far off, but is the result of a particularly messy redistricting process completed in 2002. At the time of the state's last redistricting, Maryland had a four-to-four congressional delegation (also not far off the 1.5-to-1 ratio) and then Governor Parris Glendening and state Democrats dedicated themselves to correcting that "flaw." The result was the current map, which elevated Maryland to the proud status as one of the worst gerrymandered states in the nation. Casper Taylor (D-Allegany), then Speaker of the Maryland House, said the plan was the best way to elect more Democrats, arguing "We Democrats deserve six [Democrats] and two" Republicans.

Governor O'Malley had a chance to correct the abuse of process committed in the name of petty partisanship in 2002, but instead it seems he has doubled-down and bowed before the pressure of the national Democratic party and appears ready to gerrymander Maryland so drastically that the state will likely stand side-by-side with the Rorschach test that is the gerrymandered mess created by the GOP in Texas.

Under either of the maps attributed to the Redistricting Commission, Maryland's 2nd and 3rd congressional districts would continue to defy all logic and Baltimore City would continue to be treated like a ATM simply dispensing Democratic voters used to dilute more conservative voters in surrounding suburban counties. Under Option 1, the 4th, 6th, and 7th districts would throw down the gauntlet and openly compete for the title of most egregious affront to democracy. Counties would be sliced and diced, communities divided, and parts of the state with little or nothing in common would be combined all in the name of either maximizing Democratic votes or minimizing Republican votes.
Maryland Redistricting Commission - Proposed Option 1
 Under Option 2, the 2nd and 3rd districts are altered, but continue to resemble an accidental ink spill and the 4th district is transformed into an odd merging of Prince Georges and Anne Arundel. But the 1st and 5th districts take the cake. The 5th district would stretch from Prince Georges county, down through southern Maryland, jump across the Chesapeake Bay and include the lower eastern shore. The 1st district would include the rest of the eastern shore, then drive across the Bay Bridge, cut through Anne Arundel county and end in, you guessed it, Prince Georges county.

Maryland Redistricting Commission - Proposed Option 2

Undermining Maryland's Diversity

The net effect of either Option 1 or Option 2 would be a Congressional delegation that fundamentally fails to represent the true political diversity of Maryland. Republicans and Independent voters are not the only folks who lose out under the proposed maps. According to the 2010 census, Maryland has a fast growing minority population - in fact, the state is just over 40% minority. However, minority voters are not as geographically diverse as the state's white population. Nearly 60 percent of the state's African-American population reside in Prince Georges county and Baltimore City. Montgomery county is home to over 40% of the Asian population and over 60% of the growing Hispanic population reside in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties.

Baltimore City has seen its population shrink to the point where it could occupy a single congressional district, inclusive of its Baltimore county suburbs - instead, both maps would continue to spread the City's 400,000 African-American voters across the 2nd, 3rd, and 7th congressional districts. African-Americans are the most loyal Democratic voting bloc and these maps rely on that loyalty to dilute more conservative voters in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, and Harford counties. The same is true for minority voters in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties - in order to flip the Republican-held 6th congressional district the proposals would divide Montgomery county among 3 (option 1) or 4 (option 2) congressional districts to dilute more conservative voters in western Maryland and to protect the Democratic 3rd and 8th districts. Prince Georges county also would be divided among 3 (option 1) or 4 (option 2) congressional districts to dilute more conservative voters in southern Maryland (the 5th district), Anne Arundel county (the 4th) and the eastern shore (the first).

Montgomery, Prince Georges, and Charles counties, all part of the DC suburbs and home to 50% of the state's African-American population could occupy 3 congressional districts (as opposed to the 6 they collectively occupy in the two proposals) - such a map, coupled with a cohesive Baltimore City/suburbs district would likely result in a congressional delegation consisting of at least 3 members of the minority community. Instead, the Redistricting Commission appears ready to do what has been done in the past - dilute the power of the minority vote by dividing it and using it to offset more conservative white voters elsewhere. There is no way to gerrymander Maryland and prevent Republicans from winning at least 3 congressional seats without dividing minority communities - so the interest of the party trumps the interests of the state's diverse population. In Republican-held states, the GOP often seeks to pack minority voters into a single district drawn to prevent them from diluting conservative votes elsewhere. Whether the Democratic or Republican approach the result is the same - fewer minority members of Congress.

Why the Gerrymandering?

According to the Washington Post, O'Malley was motivated by the simple fact that, following the 2010 midterms, the GOP controls the redistricting process in enough states to effect 202 House seats, compared to 47 for Democrats. And make no mistake, Republicans have been busy. In states like Texas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania Republicans have been hard at work protecting their House majority.

But the fact the Republicans are doing it other states is simply not an acceptable excuse for O'Malley to do it here. Maryland's voters deserve better. All voters deserve better. A small handful of states have sought to remove politics from the redistricting process. In these states, the needs of voters have been placed ahead of the needs of any political party - this is what Marylander's deserve and what O'Malley had a chance to deliver. Instead, O'Malley appears to have decided that he cares more about the demands of the national Democratic party than he does about representing the diverse views Marylanders.

How Bad is the Gerrymandering?

Republicans and Democrats have been so effective at gerrymandering the country that roughly 380 of the House's 435 seats are considered to be safe - that means there are about 55 competitive seats. Control of the House goes to whichever party controls at least 218 seats. At present, partisan gerrymandering has created a situation where Democrats have a floor of about 195 seats (they're just below that number right now) and Republicans have a floor of about 185 seats. This means that either party, when in the minority, is within striking distance of reclaiming the majority. It also means that either party, when in the majority, has a very tenuous hold on power. The result being that the minority party has every motivation to obstruct the majority and the majority party has every motivation to shut-out the minority in an effort to enact its agenda as quickly as possible.

Gerrymandering contributes to our polarized and dysfunctional politics in other ways as well. In the roughly 380 safe seats the majority party has been so protected from competition that there is no reason to ever listen to the demands or wishes of minority party voters in the district. In such a situation, there is no motivation for elected officials to seek compromise, no motivation to take into consideration the interests of minority party voters.

How bad is it? I'll leave that to conservative Democratic Representative Mike Ross (D-AR) “If you look at the Congress, the entire agenda is being driven by the extremes of both parties..., And that’s being driven by gerrymandering throughout the years.”

Some dismiss the impact of gerrymandering on polarization, often noting that the Senate is polarized as well - and you cannot gerrymander a state. What these folks fail to realize is that roughly 2/3 of our Senators (in any given year) previously held seats in an elective office subject to redistricting (either in the U.S. House or in a state assembly) - in other words, the Senate is a product of what gerrymandering has wrought.

Political Cowardice
The House of Representatives was meant to be the most democratic of all federal institutions. It was meant to be the body where the diverse interests of the people mingled and produced compromise. It was to be the place where the baneful influence of factions would be countered and moderated. Gerrymandering subverts all of that and subjugates the interests of the people to the interests of political parties.

Perhaps it was  naive to have expected more from Governor O'Malley, but it certainly was not wrong to have expected better. I will confess to being a pretty liberal person (I know, a liberal college professor - shocking). I support a truly progressive tax code, I want the death penalty to end, I want single-payer national health insurance, I support marriage equality, and think we need comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship and in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. I know that all of these things will only happen if Democrats are the folks making the laws. But process matters, the ends can never be used to justify the means, and democracy demands that the diverse interests and beliefs of the people be represented. It is better to lose a fair fight, than to win a rigged game.

The proposed maps for Maryland, as well as the GOP proposed maps in states like Texas, are supreme acts of political cowardice. If Democrats and Republicans truly believed that their ideas, their vision for America, were more powerful there would be no need rig the system like this. Maps such as these, represent a clear acknowledgement by the parties that they do not believe they can win a fair fight in the battlefield of ideas.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Democrats' Fraying Coalition

It's been a bad week (year?) for the Democratic Party. In two special elections the party suffered serious defeats. In Nevada (NV-2), a district that John McCain narrowly won in 2008, voters elected Republican Mark Amodei with a 22 point victory margin. In New York (NY-9), a district formerly held by disgraced representative Anthony Weiner elected a Republican for the first time since the 1920s. The district was considered to be a safe Democratic district. Weiner won re-election by nearly 20 point during the Republican sweep in 2010 and Obama carried it comfortably in 2008.

On the same day as the special elections a moderate Democratic organization called Third Way released a survey and strategy memo in which they detail the Democrats' problem with party "switchers" and "droppers." Names given to Democrats who voted for Obama in 2008 but then voted Republican in 2010 or simply did not vote.  These members of the Democratic coalition are more moderate and less loyal to the party.

In a recent post, I presented evidence that there is a significant and growing disconnect between Democratic party activists and rank and file party members. There is no such disconnect among Republican voters. Simply stated, the Democratic coalition is quite ideologically diverse, with most members identifying as moderates and nearly as many self-identified conservatives as liberals - but party activists, the folks who set the party's agenda, are decidedly liberal. As a result, a significant segment of the Democratic coalition is situated either between the extremes of the two parties or, in some cases, closer to the Republican party.

The result is a higher likelihood of defections among Democrats. A review of data from an American National Elections Studies panel survey of the same folks in 2000, 2002, and 2004 demonstrates this quite well. In Table 1, we see that Democrats of all partisan strengths in 2000 were more likely to have left the Democratic party by 2002 or 2004 than were their Republican counterparts.

Party switching is only one indication of party loyalty - voting is a far more telling indicator. Using the same panel survey, I explored the voting patterns of Democrats and Republicans across three Congressional elections and found that Democrats, especially independent Democrats, are less loyal to party over time.

As shown in Table 2, weak and independent Democrats had roughly the same party loyalty as Republicans in the 2000 election - but when looking at how those same folks voted in 2002 or 2004 the Democrats were considerably more likely to have defected and voted Republican. Unfortunately for the Democratic party, independent Democrats are the fastest growing segment of Democratic partisans, consisting of one-third of party identifiers. And these folks are less attached to the party over time and less likely to vote for the party in Congressional elections over successive elections. This may provide an explanation for the Democrat’s inability to translate their partisan identification advantage into consistent electoral victory. Democrats need to close the ideological divide that exists between party activists and rank and file members.

There may be more money and passion among activists on the left, but there aren't enough voters to secure electoral victory. The true wealth of voters in the Democratic coalition resides in the political center and that's where the Democratic party will find the path to its survival.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why Democrats Lose (or Why Republicans Win)

*** Updated with a word of warning for Republicans who think this post holds good news for the GOP (see the end).

No matter how you measure party preference, Democrats have enjoyed a consistent lead for over 60 years. According to data from the American National Election Studies that lead has fluctuated, but remains significant.

Source: ANES

In 2008, Democrats led Republicans by 14 percentage points (when voters who lean toward one party or the other were included in the calculation). Even in years when Republicans won the presidency, including the Reagan landslide of 1984, Democrats enjoyed a voter preference advantage. Though not shown in the above chart, Democrats enjoyed similar advantages during midterm elections when they lost control of Congress or failed to retake control.

So why can't Democrats translate their clear advantage in voter preference into party victory? Aren't we a polarized nation where 90% or Democrats vote for Democrats and 90% of Republicans vote for Republicans? In short, no we're not. Though America's two political parties, and the party activists who set agendas are quite polarized, there is little evidence of polarization within the broader electorate (see my prior post on this).

As shown in Panel A of the following figure, in 1972 the ideological distribution of Democrats and Republicans was actually quite similar. Both parties were dominated by self-identified moderates – the Democratic distribution skewed slightly left and the Republican right.

On the 7-point ideology identification scale (with 1 representing extremely liberal and 7 extremely conservative, a score of 4 represented moderate) the mean score for non-activist Democrats was 3.88 compared to 4.59 for Republicans – a statistically significant difference.  By 1996, the Republican electorate had shifted significantly to the right (mean value of 5.13) and Democrats had shifted slightly, though significantly to the left (mean value of 3.69). The distribution observed in 2008 is very much similar to that of 1996 for both parties. By 1996 a clear divergence between the two party coalitions is evident, but it is driven almost entirely by the Republican party’s move to the right.
Source: ANES. Party activists were defined as those who attended a campaign meeting or rally AND contributed money to a candidate or campaign.

So there is element one of the polarization story - party polarization among the broader, non-activist electorate, has been driven by Republican rank and file voters shifting right while Democratic rank and file members essentially stood still.

But there's more the story and it's told in Panel B of the figure. In 1972, Democratic and Republican party activists differed significantly from non-activists, yet moderates were a sizable component of each group's activist base.

Interestingly, there was no statistically significant difference between the mean value of the Republican distribution for activists and non-activists in 1972. Among Democrats, however, the mean value of 2.89 for party activists was significantly to the left of non-activists. This pattern held through 2008.

Though the Republican party’s activist base has become more conservative, so has the party’s non-activist membership. In 2008 the mean score on the ideological scale for Republican activists was 5.50 – not significantly different from the 5.16 value for non-activists. Among Democrats, activists sported a mean value of 2.85 as compared to 3.64 for non-activist – a significant difference.

Since 1972, Republican party members – activists and non-activists alike – have become more conservative. Suggesting little disconnect between rank and file members of the party and its most committed members. Among Democrats, however, the shift to the left observed among party activists has resulted in a divide between more liberal activist members and more moderate rank and file members.

So there's element two of the polarization story. Republican activists and rank and file members moved right together. Democratic activists are moving left without their rank and file members.

These changes in the party’s coalitions offer further explanation for the Democratic party’s electoral difficulties.
As shown in a prior post, the American electorate is not polarized along ideological lines. Though there has been some evidence of a slight rightward shift since 1972. Party activists, however, are very polarized, with Democratic activists well to the left of center and Republican activists well to the right. At first glance, this suggests party activists out of step with their party’s respective coalitions. But this is clearly truer for Democrats than for Republicans. The Democratic party’s coalition has shifted only slightly to the left, but remains well anchored around a core group of moderates. Party activists, however, are decidedly left of center.

So there's element three of the polarization story - the American public has shifted somewhat to the right, so by staying put, the Democratic coalition has in effect moved to the left.

A substantial share of the Democratic party’s coalition finds itself ideologically situated between the extremes of partisan activists on the left and the right. Simply stated, a Democratic party agenda tailored to liberal party activists is more likely to alienate a much broader segment of the Democratic coalition than would a Republican party agenda tailored to conservatives.

There is a greater disconnect between activists and voters in the Democratic party. Democrats have more to lose, with regard to potential voters, by following activists to the left than do Republicans by following a lead to the right. Given this ideological disconnect, one would expect less partisan attachment or party loyalty among Democratic voters – a weakening of partisanship.

In a separate posting later this week I will show that Democratic partisans are in fact less loyal to the party over time and more likely to disagree with the party on key issues of party faith.

In short, Democrats lose because the folks who set the agenda for the party are more out of step with rank and file membership than are the folks who set the agenda for the Republican party. For Republicans, there is strength and ideological cohesion on the right. Republicans win because there is little difference between party activists and rank and file members. Among Democrats, however, strength comes not from the left but from the center - that's where the parties core group of rank and file voters are and when the party strays left many of those voters defect.

Update: But Republicans should not look to this post as good news for the GOP. At present, Republicans are able to win because so many Democrats occupy that middle ground between the extremes of the two activist elements - but the GOP has been moving right faster than the overall electorate and in the opposite direction of the non-activist Democrats. If the GOP continues to trek to the right they will reach a point where moderate Democrats no longer view the GOP as an acceptable alternative.

Those moderate Democrats may decide to support their own party or just stay home - either way the GOP would be left with it's smaller coalition of voters.

Perhaps more dangerous for the GOP, the Democratic party could moderate it's agenda and actively seek to close the gap between activists and non-activists. If Democrats can unify their coalition and consistently attract the broad middle of America's electorate the GOP is sunk and will return to the near minor party status they occupied between 1932 and 1964.

The data on party coalition ideology suggests that Democrats can move to the center and win, if Republicans move to the center they risk alienating a substantial portion of their electoral coalition.  So long as America remains a moderate nation, odds favor a re-emergent Democratic majority - but only if Democrats actively work to make it happen. The real question for Democrats is whether liberal party activists will cede control of the agenda and allow the party to move in the direction of it's moderate, non-activist voters. Current anger at President Obama, coming from the American left, suggest those activists are not quite ready.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The GOP has become the Gene Hackman Character from the Birdcage

I was watching The Birdcage on TV today (the 1996 remake of the french film La Cage Aux Folles). As I watched the Gene Hackman character I realized something funny and sad - his character was a caricature, an exaggeration, in 1996, but today the character plays like any number of GOP leaders or presidential candidates.

Watch this clip from the film dealing with gays in the military and prayer in schools and ask yourself - is there anything funny about Hackman's portrayal? 

It was funny in 1996 because it represented a fringe element of the Republican party - a party that had nominated George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole - Dole stood at the podium during his nominating convention and said:
The Republican Party is broad and inclusive. It represents many streams of opinion and many points of view. But if there's anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the Party of Lincoln. And the exits which are clearly marked are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise.
What happened to the GOP? The Hackman caricature has become reality. Is there anything spoken by the Hackman character (then for shock value laughs) that is not today a standard part of a GOP candidate's stump speech?

Since the 1960s, the Democrats have become ever more beholden to leftwing interests and activists. But the political reality of being one of two parties in a right of center country has tempered the party's liberalism and resulted in a greater willingness to compromise and moderate. The GOP, however, has found considerable success via a strategy that targets very conservative base voters. At one time it may have been mere strategy, but those base voters now dominate the elected members of the party and truly set it's priorities.

It's a sad thing to see...

I think the GOP continues to win because most independent voters identify with the GOP on issues such as the size and scope of government, taxation, and, often, foreign policy. Meanwhile, social issue are less salient and independents have been able to tolerate the GOP's increasing social conservatism - but as the GOP moves ever more right in the face of a larger society that is becoming ever more tolerant it will become harder and harder for independents to turn a blind eye to the GOP on social issues.

With Democrats becoming more accommodating on issue such as taxation and spending cuts the party is positioning itself rather well to become the new home of those independent voters.  The great danger for the Democrats is that the party's liberal base will feel rejected and stop supporting the party. The liberal base, however, has never been quite as large as the conservative base - so the Democratic party can become America's moderate and dominant party even without liberal activists - and I think it's likely that it will.