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.