Hogan wants redistricting reform; here's why Democrats should allow it

Here's why it's in Democrats' self-interest to back Hogan's redistricting reform plan.

Democrats fuming over the election of Donald Trump despite his 2.8 million vote deficit to Hillary Clinton are frequently confronted with the fact that the framers of the Constitution didn't intend for the election of the president to be a direct reflection of the popular will. (Granted, we think that idea is outdated, and in any case, we rather doubt Mr. Trump is what they had in mind.)

But the one area where the founders were quite clear that the popular will should be reflected is in the House of Representatives. It was designed to be the largest branch of the federal government, with the most frequent elections and the only one that initially reflected a direct vote. Yet the 115th Congress set to take office on Tuesday presents a distorted reflection of the political will of the people. In the national aggregate, Republican candidates barely bested Democrats, according to a tally by the Cook Political Report — they prevailed by a combined margin of 1.4 million out of 129 million votes cast — and because of independent and third-party candidates, they took less than half of the total. But Republicans will control 55 percent of the seats in the House, and 100 percent of the power.

The latter is because of long standing House rules that give tremendous control to the party in the majority. The former is the product of gerrymandering.

Drawing legislative lines to help one party and hurt the other isn't a new idea, of course; the term was coined in 1812 to mock the absurd shape of districts created to advance the interests of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry's Democratic-Republican Party. What's new is the incredible sophistication of the efforts, aided by computer mapping and a conviction among partisans in any given state that they must take the most extreme possible measures to help their side because the opposing party will do the same in some other state it controls.

That's the rationale offered by Maryland's Democrats for congressional districts that are, arguably, the most gerrymandered in the nation. The result of the contortions of our map is that Democrats currently control 87.5 percent of our seats in the House (seven of eight) despite the party's candidates winning just over 60 percent of the vote.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, made a strong push for redistricting reform last year, even at one point seeking to enlist President Barack Obama's aid in convincing General Assembly Democrats to support his proposal to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would create a non-partisan commission to redraw the lines after each census. Democrats didn't even give it a vote in committee, arguing that a solution should come on the national level or, failing that, in a compact with a Republican controlled state — say, Maryland will stop gerrymandering if Virginia (Republicans: 49 percent of the vote, 64 percent of the congressional seats) did the same.

Mr. Hogan says he will try again in 2017, and we certainly hope he does. There are good reasons Democrats should go along with him (other than "it's the right thing to do," an argument that has thus far been singularly unpersuasive).

First, a court case out of Wisconsin offers the best possibility in decades that the Supreme Court could actually intervene to limit partisan gerrymandering. Using new political science techniques to quantify the "wasted" votes of the party that is the victim of a gerrymander, plaintiffs in Wisconsin convinced the majority in a three-judge panel in federal district court that a legislative redistricting plan there, which gave Republicans 60 of 99 seats despite their party's having won a minority of votes statewide, unconstitutionally disenfranchised voters based on their political affiliation. It appears likely headed for the Supreme Court, where Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has shown some interest in addressing the issue in the past, would serve as a swing vote regardless of whether Mr. Trump is able to seat another conservative on the bench. The Supreme Court is sensitive to emerging public sentiment as reflected in state laws, and a move by Maryland to reject partisan gerrymandering could have a real effect on national standards.

Second, the next governor will hold a dominant position in the drawing of Maryland's congressional districts after the next census. With less than two years to go before then, Democrats have to ask themselves who they've got who will beat Mr. Hogan. Unless they have a really compelling answer to that question, and we've yet to hear one, now might be the time to reconsider their position.

Finally, there's the fact that 72 percent of Maryland voters support an independent redistricting commission. If they'd like to hear Mr. Hogan mention that in every speech of his re-election campaign, they can be our guest.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°