Monday, August 10, 2015

Maryland Needs Redistricting Reform Now

During his State of the State address, MD Governor Larry Hogan called for redistricting reform in Maryland. As he condemned the process of partisan Gerrymandering (used by both parties to create artificial party strength by disenfranchising members of the minority party) most Democrats in the General Assembly sat on their hands and refused to embrace his call. Their reluctance is easy to understand once one looks at Maryland's state legislative and congressional district maps (see below).

Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland by roughly 2 to 1, but that voter registration advantage overstates the actual electoral strength of Democrats. As I have detailed in prior posts, the effective partisan breakdown in Maryland is closer to 1.5 to 1. It's an advantage sufficient to explain Democrats' dominance in statewide elections, but insufficient to explain their 3 to 1 domination in the General Assembly and their 7 to 1 advantage in the state's Congressional delegation. In order to maintain those tremendous advantages, Democrats have rigged the game. They have manipulated the states legislative and Congressional districts so as to effectively disenfranchise non-Democratic voters.

Maryland's state legislative districts look as though they were created by an over-caffeinated 4 year old with a paint gun. But the haphazard appearance obscures what is actually a carefully crafted map. Jagged and sprawling districts have been created solely to serve a single purpose - maximize the number of Democratic seats. Each of Maryland's legislative districts elect 3 members to the House of Delegates. The districts can either elect all of the members at large or a district can be subdivided into 3 single member or into a 1 single member and 2 two member districts. As originally intended, single member districts were to be reserved for geographically large rural districts. Democrats have used the district structures to carve out Democratic districts in otherwise Republican regions - this is clearly evident in Districts 2, 3, 30 and 37. Democrats have leveraged their effective map making into a nearly 3 to 1 majority in the General Assembly.

But Maryland's legislative districts cannot hold a candle to the state's Congressional districts when it comes to political manipulation. During much of the 1990s, Maryland had a 4-to-4 congressional delegation. But during the 2001/2002 redistricting process then Governor Parris Glendening and state Democrats dedicated themselves to correcting that "flaw." The new map resulted in a 6-to-2 Congressional delegation and elevated Maryland to the proud status as one of the most 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]." 

In 2011, Governor O'Malley had a chance to correct the abuse of process committed in the name of petty partisanship in 2002, but instead he doubled-down and gerrymandered Maryland so drastically that the state now stands side-by-side with the Rorschach test that is the gerrymandered mess created by the GOP in Texas. The O'Malley map created a 7-to-1 Congressional delegation in Maryland. According to data from the 2010 Census, only 174,000 Marylanders actually needed to be placed into new districts in order to create districts with equal populations. The O'Malley plan placed over 1.5 million Marylanders - nearly a third of the state's residents - into new districts.

So brazen were the efforts to gerrymander the map that few bothered to disguise their motives. Maryland's 3rd District is considered to be one of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation. Why does it look like "broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate” across Central Maryland? According to Senate President and map co-author Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) the answer is simple, the map was gerrymandered to meet the needs to the 3rd District's Democratic representative. "Congressman Sarbanes lived in Baltimore County, but wanted to continue to represent the capital city Annapolis." Why do so many districts claim a part of the Baltimore region? Again, according to Miller, because so many of the state's incumbent Democrats live in the Baltimore region. But such accommodations were not afforded to the state's Republican incumbents. Republican Roscoe Bartlett saw his once conservative sixth district fundamentally altered in a successful effort to create a new Democratic district.

Miller attempted to defend the map with a rather peculiar argument. He stated, "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. The reason the 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 represent the bulk of the Democratic vote. If Democrats were to produce a map containing compact districts that respected existing county lines then there would be 4 or 5 Democratic districts packed along the I-95 corridor and Republicans would carry the rest of the state.

Miller's response to Larry Hogan's call for redistricting reform - "It's not going to happen... this is an issue that needs to be settled nationally." Miller cited Republican gerrymandering in other states and a reason to not reform the process in Maryland. Maryland Democratic Party executive director Pat Murray criticized Hogan's proposal as "dabbling in national politics instead of focusing on issues that impact middle-class families."  Both are just sorry statements. There is perhaps no issue of greater import to state and local politics than the issue of gerrymandering. And there is perhaps no issue more important to middle and working class families than that of fair representation. At it's heart gerrymandering represents the concerted effort by partisans to undermine the fundamental right democratic representation. Gerrymandering creates a system in which those in office choose their voters instead of a system where voters choose those in office. Miller understands this all to well as he took advantage of his position on the redistricting committee to redraw his own district in an effort to boost his electoral fortunes. 

Of course it would be preferable to have national redistricting reform, but those who represent the people of Maryland have first and foremost an obligation to the people of Maryland. As such, any effort to avoid reform of Maryland's redistricting process by calling for national reform is simply an excuse to put the interests of the people of Maryland secondary to the interests of the national party. Maryland needs redistricting reform now.