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).