Drawing the lines after 2018

Maryland Democrats shouldn’t get too excited about this week’s decision by a federal district court preserving, at least for the 2018 election, the boundaries of Western Maryland’s 6th Congressional district. By a 2-to-1 margin, the court found that the lawsuit brought by seven Republican plaintiffs had failed to meet the standard to justify tossing out the district’s current boundaries, but it put no stamp of approval on the kind of partisan gerrymandering behind how those lines were drawn.

Let’s face it, you don’t have to be a Republican to dislike Maryland’s congressional map and its, shall we call them “eccentric,” lines. The 6th district makes perfect sense at the western end as it covers all of Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties. It’s when the district hits Frederick and Montgomery counties that things take a turn for the odd, splitting off in two directions like a meandering river in an obvious effort to throw in enough registered Democrats to take the seat away from Rep. Roscoe Bartlett in 2012. And that’s not exactly a disputed claim. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley essentially testified to it in court.

Here’s the Democrats’ justification for such manipulation in a nutshell: Republicans do the same thing in states where they hold the reins of power, so why shouldn’t we? To do otherwise, they point out, would be to cede greater control of the U.S. House of Representatives to the Republicans in a kind of unilateral surrender. That makes perfect sense — if that point-of-view served the interest of the people they represent, but it doesn’t, really. While we often disagree with the current congressional leadership, gerrymandering isn’t the solution, it’s a big contributor to the problem. The more politically polarized the congressional district, the less likely its representative is to find common ground with lawmakers from the opposing party. There is insufficient incentive for compromise.

In the past, courts have permitted gerrymandering (the 6th district isn’t even the state’s most bizarrely drawn) unless it discriminates based on race or ethnicity, but that could be changing. In a separate case, the Supreme Court will soon be reviewing a challenge to Wisconsin’s legislative map and experts speculate the nation’s highest court may finally be drawing its own line — perhaps setting a standard that places limits on partisan gerrymandering. Such a legal standard might, for example, focus on asymmetry of voter preference to election outcomes. If 40 percent of Maryland voters consistently support Republican candidates for the House in a given year, is it really fair that the state keeps filling seven of its eight seats with Democrats?

Perhaps gerrymandering may soon be like what has been happening to Confederate monuments in recent weeks. We’ve been quietly appalled by them for years but it took the right set of circumstances, and some generational change, for people to finally take action. The three-judge panel that ruled in the Democrats’ favor this week and quite a few unkind words for partisan gerrymandering calling it “cancerous” and “noxious.” Democrats in Annapolis might also have a more practical concern: Gov. Larry Hogan is looking pretty good in the polls. Should he win reelection next year, he’ll have a chance to set his own mark on redistricting after the 2020 census (although Democrats in the legislature are likely to reject it and they’ll have the final say).

The better solution? Take a cue from other states where real redistricting reform has taken place, such as California, and create a nonpartisan independent commission to draw the boundaries. It won’t maximize Democratic representation in Congress, of course, but it will maximize the potential for districts to make sense, for them to respect geography and tradition (keeping Frederick County in the 6th, for example, while reducing the number of precincts from Montgomery County, which has little in common with Western Maryland), and for them simply to be fair. Might it mean Maryland’s Republican congressional delegation meetings will involve someone besides Rep. Andy Harris? Absolutely, but it also might take Mr. Harris out of the 1st District given how the district used to be drawn before it took a chunk of Baltimore County.

If there’s one lesson to take from Donald Trump’s election victory, it’s the frustration of average Americans to business-as-usual politics. Gov. Larry Hogan has backed redistricting reform and we’ll admit that’s an easier call when your party stands to benefit. But it’s also the right thing to do, and that should mean something to anyone, regardless of party affiliation, who claims to be looking out for the best interests of Marylanders.

Our view: The 6th Congressional District won’t be retooled next year but that doesn’t make Maryland’s partisan gerrymandering acceptable — or inevitable

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