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Why redistricting is political destiny [Commentary]

One of a series of weekly commentaries from Harford County state legislators regarding the 2018 Maryland General Assembly session.

Redistricting is the process where political boundaries are revised to take into consideration the shifts in population measured every ten years by the U.S. Census. If a district loses population and a neighboring district gains population it is important that the new districts fairly represent these shifts to avoid one community gaining influence at the expense of the other. A community with less population harms those communities with greater population. What has happened with analytics, computers, and sophisticated systems is that politicians are picking their voters as opposed to voters picking their representatives.

The political black art of creating political power through the manipulation of legislative and congressional boundaries, was fathered by Elbridge Gerry, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Originally he was opposed to political parties, but during his second term as Governor of Massachusetts he signed the bill which approved the Essex County district that was shaped like a salamander, the origin of gerrymandering.

A Maryland lawsuit, Benisek v. Lamone is currently before the United States Supreme Court. Former Governor O’Malley acknowledged his goal was to use the power of the Governor’s pen to secure another Democratic Congressional seat. Under oath, O’Malley stated, “Part of my intent was to create a map that, all things being legal and equal, would nonetheless, be more likely to elect more Democrats rather than less.”

Eric Hawkins was tasked to create more Democratic Districts. The tools Mr. Hawkins used to accomplish his mandate of seven democrats to one republican were sophisticated mapping software, census data, detailed partisan voting algorithms, meetings with the democratic delegation members, and the use of congressional aides personal email accounts to keep the bosses up to date with his work. There was absolutely no transparency in this process.

The fix was in, but Governor O’Malley’s redistricting commission traveled the state on a public listening tour to uphold the charade of transparency and inclusiveness in the redistricting process. The Hawkins map was the final product of the Governor’s Redistricting Commission and the General Assembly voted for it. The Redistricting plan was then petitioned to referendum by 56,000 signatures and placed on the ballot. Unfortunately, the Attorney General’s Office wrote the narrative for the ballot question and the map was approved by the voters.

In 2017 the legislature passed a bill that has Maryland reform its redistricting process when five other states - New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina change their process. The bill only deals with congressional districts and leaves the General Assembly Districts putting the Republicans in as few districts as possible (packing) and placing the Democrats in as many districts as possible (cracking). This dilutes the power and effect of the Republican votes.

Governor Hogan is joining former Democratic Governor Gray Davis to file amicus curiae briefs to support the plaintiff’s in Benisek v. Lamone. The thrust of the case is the 6th Congressional District where large numbers of Democratic voters from Montgomery County were included in the Western Maryland District that resulted in Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett losing his 20 year Congressional seat to Democrat John Delaney. The Plaintiff argue that the state violated the First Amendment prohibition against individuals because of speech or conduct. Sixth District voters are penalized because of how they voted.

For the third time, Governor Hogan is introducing his Redistricting Reform Act which is similar to his two prior attempts to change the process to a nonpartisan commission. The General Assembly has failed to bring his bills to the floor for an up or down vote despite the fact that Maryland is considered the most gerrymandered state in the country. Governor Hogan vetoed the five state compact bill, and the legislature is holding the veto override until the end of session for fear of losing its grip on the redistricting process.

Governor Hogan is on the right side of this issue and is supported by groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. I am not sure that my Democratic colleagues understand that now is the time to do the right thing and create an independent commission that has no political agenda but to create districts that are contiguous, compact, and communities of interest.

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