Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Voters may Reject Maryland's Gerrymandered Mess, but Congress can Stop Redistricting Abuse

Opponents of Maryland's recently adopted Congressional district map appear all but certain of having submitted enough valid signatures to force the map to referendum in November. At last count, they were only 2,200 signatures away from victory with significantly more than 2,500 signatures awaiting validation - an important fact given that only about 10% of all signatures have been rejected thus far. Should the State Board of Election verify enough signatures, the Maryland Democratic party has hinted it will fight the validity of enough accepted signatures to avoid having the map placed before the voters. This is a bad idea. Every non-partisan observer of state politics recognizes the new map for what it is - a partisan power grab intended to net Democrats an additional seat in Congress. To accomplish this, Gov. O'Malley submitted a map to the General Assembly that contains some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation. Maryland's map is every bit as egregious as the Republican drawn map in Texas. The new Maryland map would likely result in a congressional delegation that is 7 to 1 Democrat over Republican - in a state where Republicans routinely receive at least 40% of the statewide vote. Worse, the map uses minority voters as electoral cannon fodder - slicing and dicing minority communities so that their reliably Democratic votes can dilute Republican votes in the conservative parts of the state that flank the I-95 corridor.

The new Maryland congressional map already mocks the very concept of representative democracy, the state Democratic party really doesn't need to add insult to injury by denying the people their right to petition and judge the map for themselves.

Even if voters do reject the new map, there is nothing to prevent Governor O'Malley from resubmitting the same (or a worse) map to the General Assembly. A rejection of the map by voters would send a powerful message, but more needs to be done.

Legislation has been introduced in the current Congress, by Heath Shuler (D-NC) that would end partisan redistricting. The proposed legislation, requires "redistricting to be conducted through a plan developed by the independent redistricting commission established in the state, or if such plan is not enacted into law, the redistricting plan selected by the state's highest court or developed by a U.S. district court."

Want to make sure that this is the last cycle subject to partisan redistricting? Want to undo the mess created by the GOP in states like PA, TX or NC and by the Democrats in IL and MD? Call your member of Congress and demand action on The John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act (H.R. 453).

Understand, gerrymandering is used by both parties. The simple and unfortunate truth is both parties eagerly engage in this systemic abuse. Maryland's 2nd and 3rd Congressional districts have been highlighted as being among the worst gerrymandered in the nation since appearing a decade ago. Republican drawn districts in Texas (or Pennsylvania) are no worse than Democratic drawn districts in Illinois (or Maryland).

In 2008, a bipartisan group of Representatives sponsored legislation to enact nation-wide, non-partisan redistricting reform (Congress has that power under the Constitution) and called on then Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hold hearings - but it went no where.

2008 offered a perfect storm for reform - under divided government and 2 years prior to a new Census neither party knew who would be in control of drawing new district lines. That uncertainty would have made reform achievable.

If you worry that President Bush would have vetoed the measure, the legislation was reintroduced in 2009. At that time Democrats controlled the whole process - the House, the White House, and held a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. President Obama was on record opposing gerrymandering having once commented "too often, our representatives are selecting their voters, as opposed to the voters selecting the representatives. That is a situation that I think the American people should not accept."

But these efforts at bilateral disarmament went nowhere. In fact, as these legislators were advocating nationwide, bilateral disarmament, Nancy Pelosi joined an effort opposing non-partisan redistricting reform in her home state of California.

Proposals were ignored under Republican Congresses as well and are now languishing in the GOP-controlled House and Democratic Senate. Speaker John Boehner has shown no interest in redistricting reform. The simple fact is both parties, when presented with opportunities to end this process and put the parties on a level playing field - subject only to the judgement of the voters - have balked.

Partisan redistricting is an issue driven by each party's desire for power and neither party wants to surrender power - even if it is the form of bilateral disarmament.

The John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act (H.R. 453) is currently languishing in the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution. House leadership seems to have no desire in moving this bill forward, but House leadership can be bypassed.

If a simple majority of House members (regardless of party) sign a Discharge Petition then the supported legislation can move to the floor regardless of leadership opposition or failure of committee action. Call your member of Congress  demand they sign a discharge petition for H.R. 453.

Through the creation of safe seats, gerrymandering creates a reality where the greatest threat to a member of Congress comes from a primary challenge within their party - not from a general election contest. The result being members of Congress more concerned with pleasing the small (but highly motivated and partisan) segment of the electorate who participate in primary elections. For Democrats this means committed liberal activists and committed conservative activists for Republicans - neither group represents the broader electorate.

Help reclaim the House of Representatives for the people and free it from the grip of the parties and ideologically motivated issue activists. Rejecting Maryland's newly created map in November would be a small victory in a much larger war. But it would be an important victory. It may even help spur interest in the John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act or another proposal for national reform. Partisan redistricting undermines the very concept of democratic representation - nothing could be more damaging to American democracy.

When you go to the polls in November put your particular party affiliation aside. Opposing Maryland's gerrymandered mess is not an act of partisanship, but supporting it is. Urban Dictionary defines a Partisan Hack as "Someone who cares more about supporting a particular party or ideology than supporting what is morally right, or factually true." The maps in Maryland and Texas and myriad other states were created by such hacks. Take a stand against the ideologues in November and vote to toss the map.