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News Opinion Editorial

When politicians pick voters: Maryland's congressional district maps

The chairwoman of the commission Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed to draft new congressional district maps for the state said that the members had attempted to respect natural and jurisdictional boundaries and communities of interest in drawing the lines. That is true, insofar as the group isn't proposing that the districts cross the Potomac into Virginia at any point. Otherwise, it's hard to find much in the Rorschach test-worthy map they produced that conforms to any standard of compactness or continuity.

One district starts at the state's westernmost boundary and sweeps down near the border with Washington, D.C. Another links western Prince George's County with the waterfront of eastern Anne Arundel. A district runs from Montgomery County to the Pennsylvania border. And those are the relatively sane ones.

The 2nd District begins in Randallstown in Baltimore County, proceeds in an arc into northeastern Baltimore City (with a detour to Cockeysville to pick up the home of the incumbent, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger), then snakes on a narrow path over to the Chesapeake Bay, where it heads north into Harford County and jumps south across the Key Bridge into Anne Arundel County andFort Meade.

The 3rd District amazingly connects Owings Mills, Federal Hill, Annapolis and western Howard County. If the incumbent, Rep. John Sarbanes, doesn't already have one, perhaps he should invest in a boat, because his new district hops from the end of one peninsula to the next along the Arundel waterfront. The effect, on the color-coded maps the state has produced, looks a bit like Anne Arundel County got a French manicure.

In its write-up of its plan, the redistricting commission sought to emphasize the ways in which the proposal reflects public input, gathered during a series of meetings held across the state. But what the maps really reflect is deference to incumbents.

Much has been made of the evident hope of the map drawers that the new districts would put Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett at risk. But the maps also protect his fellow Republican, Rep. Andy Harris; the only truly odd thing about his district, which centers on the Eastern Shore, is that it includes his house in Cockeysville. Likewise, the 2nd District would look much less strange if not for the effort to include the home of Mr. Ruppersberger, who lives in the next precinct over from Mr. Harris.

Perhaps the most galling commentary on the process came from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who explained some of the contortions of the map by noting that the commission, of which he was a member, worked hard to accommodate requests such as Mr. Sarbanes' desire to represent Annapolis and Rep. Steny Hoyer's wish to have his alma mater, the University of Maryland, in his district. Apparently our maps are screwy not just because of power politics but because of the whims of politicians.

The effect is to be doubly protective of incumbency. Not only are the districts carefully calibrated based on past voting patterns to help Democratic incumbents (and in the case of the 1st District, the Republican Mr. Harris), but the bizarre district lines make it difficult for anyone to mount a successful challenge. Since the districts rarely center on any one community, the only person with a district-wide constituency is the person who already holds the seat.

If you start with the premise that incumbency is a primary factor to consider in drawing the maps, this is what you get. If you don't, the exercise becomes much simpler and more sensible. The Maryland Republican Party demonstrated just how much so with its own proposal, a map that pays no attention to incumbency — it cuts Mr. Harris out of his own district — but follows geography closely. It actually includes three majority-minority districts, rather than the two in the commission's plan.

The trouble is, Republicans would never produce such a proposal if they were in power. If they were, they would be seeking to topple a Democrat, and the lines would be just as convoluted as the current proposal. In modern politics, the squiggly lines of Maryland's maps are not the exception but the norm.

An African-American political action committee is promising to sue if the commission's proposal is accepted, on the grounds that it disenfranchises minority voters. That may be the only way these maps could be derailed; a federal lawsuit alleging partisan gerrymandering failed to stop Maryland's new congressional district maps 10 years ago, and they are at least as convoluted as the current proposal.

That's what you get when you let politicians decide who will elect them rather than the other way around. They create a system that protects themselves, and they will never change it — unless the voters punish them for their behavior. Until that happens, this is the kind of map we're going to get, no matter which party is in charge.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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