Saturday, July 16, 2011

A model redistricting plan from the Maryland GOP

The following post is from a column that I wrote for the Washington Post - the full text (with nice maps) can be veiwed at the Washington Post's Opinions Page.

Maryland is home to some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country. But the decennial redistricting getting underway gives Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and state leaders a chance to remake the partisan, unrepresentative districts created 10 years ago under Gov. Parris Glendening, another Democrat — districts that have harmed Democratic and unaffiliated voters as much as they have Republicans.

And the good news is officials don’t have to spend much time reviewing voter rolls and computer data to achieve this good-government outcome. All they have to do is adopt the plan offered by Maryland Republicans. Yes, you read that correctly.

That’s not the process that’s in the offing, of course. Instead, a task force created by O’Malley will redraw districts so that each contains roughly 721,000 people, a map which will then be sent to the General Assembly for its rubber stamp. O’Malley has promised to produce a map representative of Maryland’s diversity. Given the Democratic makeup of the task force, however, I suspect this will be a decidedly partisan affair (as it is in most states) dedicated to the electoral interests of O’Malley’s party.

It is important to consider how Maryland’s bizarre congressional districts came into existence. Before the 2001 redistricting, the state’s congressional delegation included four Democrats and four Republicans. That split was unacceptable to Glendening and state Democratic leaders, given their party’s sizable registration advantage, so they drew lines to dilute Republican counties and expand the reach of Democratic strongholds.

The goal was clear — elect more Democrats — and it was met. But there was a cost. Rather than respecting political diversity and natural community boundaries, districts were designed solely to maximize Democratic influence.

Counties were sliced and diced. The boundaries of the 1st and 2nd districts were altered to pack more Republicans into the 1st and more Democrats in the 2nd. The 8th District, mostly Montgomery County, was spread over three districts, with the more Republican areas shifted into the 6th District along with Western Maryland and much of northern Baltimore and Harford counties. To offset Republican voters elsewhere in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties, the city of Baltimore’s residents were treated as spoils to be divided among the 2nd, 3rd and 7th districts. As a result, the unique urban interests of Democratic Baltimore City residents were diluted by the suburban demands of Baltimore, Harford and Howard.

Closer in to Washington, Prince George’s County was divided among the 4th, 5th and 8th districts. Montgomery was spread across the 4th, 6th and 8th. Again, this was done to maximize the impact of these Democratic bastions.

Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties were divided in ways that defy all reason — except one: diluting the GOP vote. Harford was cut into thirds and given to the 1st, 2nd and 6th districts. Baltimore County was spread across the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th. Anne Arundel was divided among the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th. The 2nd and 3rd districts look like someone spilled ink on a map of Maryland.

Rather than correct the mess, however, most observers expect the O’Malley task force to try to make the congressional delegation even more Democratic. The 6th District, currently a Republican stronghold, is the most likely target, with many of the District’s Republican voters being shifted to the 1st District which would then stretch from Somerset County to Carroll County. The process is being driven by the National Democratic Party and its desire to gain the two-dozen seats needed to reclaim control of the House of Representative; representing the interests of Maryland’s voters is of little concern.

Meanwhile, state Republicans have proposed a map with compact districts that treat the borders of counties and communities with respect. Only Baltimore County would occupy more than two districts. A badly needed Baltimore City district (a new District 7) would be created by adding a sliver of Baltimore County’s population to the city’s 631,000 residents. Harford would occupy one district. Anne Arundel would be in two districts not four. Montgomery and Prince George’s would each be included in two districts — the minimum possible given their large populations.

But the Republican map will be ignored. Fatally, it would probably produce a five-to-three party split, with the newly drawn 1st, 3rd and 6th Districts likely to elect Republicans. The 2nd District would become a new swing district, and the 4th, 5th, 7th and 8th would almost certainly stay in Democratic hands.

Yet those results would better represent the political and geographic diversity of the state. Democrats make up 56 percent of Maryland voters and Republicans 27 percent. But the Democrats’ advantage is tightly confined to the city of Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs, with the remainder of the state more competitive or leaning Republican, and unaffiliated voters (about 15 percent) are the fastest rising voting bloc in the state. Because of that, a congressional map yielding a delegation of four Democrats and three Republicans, with one swing district, would be a fair representation of the true political geography of the state. It would without question be much more accurate than a map creating a seven-to-one Democratic advantage.

The Republicans’ proposal isn’t perfect, but it is the standard by which the coming O’Malley map should be judged.