Maryland's contorted congressional districts

Former Baltimore Sun cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher (aka KAL) saw a strange menagerie in the congressional district lines drawn by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening's redistricting advisory committee a decade ago. (KAL)

In 2001, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed a five-member advisory commission on the redrawing of legislative and congressional district lines, some questioned whether the entire exercise — including a dozen public hearings — would all be for show. Some speculated at the time that it would not be the desires of the various communities about how they should be joined together in districts that would determine the final maps but, rather, cold political calculations made behind closed doors in the governor's office — calculations made to reward friends, punish enemies and, overall, get more Democrats into elected office.

It is a mark of progress, of sorts, that a decade later, nobody is asking questions like that. This time, there is virtually no doubt that the redistricting process is fundamentally political in nature and governed by self-interested politicians. They're not even particularly subtle about it. Rep. Steny Hoyer has made it known that he and his fellow Democrats will be producing their own proposal for congressional district maps (no commission required), and the talk in Annapolis is about making a play for adding a seventh Democrat to the state's eight-member House delegation — though not necessarily by going after freshman Rep. Andy Harris in the Eastern Shore-based 1st District. There is also talk of lumping more Democrats into Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's Western Maryland-based 6th District to make it competitive.

In some sense, this is an inside game with more consequence for politicians than voters. The worst excesses of an earlier era of redistricting are illegal — no longer can lines be drawn to minimize the representation of minorities in Congress or the State House — and voters, of course, remain free to behave differently from how the party strategists expect. The increasingly sophisticated use of computers to manage the drawing of congressional districts hasn't kept control of one or both chambers from changing repeatedly in recent years. And sometimes districts that are supposed to be a lock for one party become competitive, such as in Maryland's 1st in 2008.

But the effect of gerrymandering on our democracy is subtly corrosive. It feeds into cynicism that the system is rigged and contributes to a polarization of Congress and state legislatures that limits our ability to handle the major challenges the nation faces. Our response to the looming deadline on the federal debt limit, taxes, the economy, war and any number of other issues might be entirely different if our representatives were chosen in districts based on community interest rather than partisan interest.

Because of the date of Maryland's primary elections next year, the congressional district maps will get drawn first, likely during a special session of the legislature in the fall. They do need to be redrawn. An ideal district in Maryland would have 721,694 people, and with the exception of the 3rd, 4th and 8th districts, all of them are currently far from the mark. The 7th District, represented by Democrat Elijah Cummings, is nearly 62,000 people below the magic number, and the 5th District, represented by Mr. Hoyer, who is the second-ranking Democrat in the House, is too large by more than 45,000 people. Reps. Andy Harris in the 1st and Roscoe Bartlett in the 6th both need to shed thousands of voters, and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd needs to pick up about 21,000 more.

How that will happen is through a complex negotiation between Democratic incumbents, who want to maximize the safety of their own districts, and party leaders, who may try to take some reliably Democratic precincts away from them to boost the chances of some challenger against one of the state's Republicans. In the last redrawing of the maps, that was accomplished by peeling voters away from incumbent Democrats throughout the Baltimore region and lumping them into then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s district to create an opportunity for Mr. Ruppersberger, who was then term limited as Baltimore County executive. (For good measure, the map drawers had the 1st District snake around from the Eastern Shore to grab Mr. Ehrlich's townhouse in Mays Chapel.)

Community interest appeared to have little to do with it; after all, it is hard to imagine that someone in Randallstown stood up at a public hearing and suggested connecting her community with Cockeysville, northeastern Baltimore City, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Dundalk, Cherry Hill, and Fort Meade and the National Security Administration in a district shaped like the claw of a crab, after it has been pounded a few times with a mallet.

It would be nice to think that a neutral third party could be found to handle this task, but the track record there isn't perfect either. After Mr. Glendening's legislative district maps were thrown out by the Court of Appeals in 2002, the judges drew a map of their own. While an improvement on the governor's proposal in a number of respects, the court's map contained its own logical peculiarities. The justices decided, for example, that it's OK for legislative district lines to cross jurisdictional boundaries everywhere in the state except for Baltimore City.

But even if there is no ideal way to draw district maps, Maryland's system could stand for improvement. Allowing the governor to appoint all members of the advisory committee, and allowing the governor to modify that committee's plan (or scrap it entirely) before submitting a map to the General Assembly for approval, concentrates too much power in one person's hands. Changing that would require an amendment to the state constitution, and under the current balance of power in Annapolis, there is virtually no chance that will happen. All voters can do is raise a ruckus, at the public hearings and at the ballot box, and hope that one day elected officials will put the people's interest above their own.