One legislator, one district

Imagine if your legislative representative served only one-half or even one-third of the number of constituents he or she currently represents. Do you think your vote would matter more? Would your representative more accurately represent your community if given fewer constituents? Of course they would; they would be elected by a much smaller voting populace. The likelihood of seeing your elected official campaigning on your street could be twice or three times as likely.

This could become a reality in Maryland's House of Delegates. Currently, 120 of the 141 delegates are elected from multi-member, at-large districts. Out of those 120, 24 serve districts with two members and 96 serve in districts that elect three delegates, all from the same voters. This includes all of Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore City, plus a vast majority of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Charles and Howard counties.

Why do we do this? The practice is left over from the days when political bosses ruled Maryland and a candidate needed their approval in order to get on a "slate" of candidates. Now, the bosses are gone — but the multi-member districts serve the same purpose: They insulate incumbents of both parties from the voters.

How can voters — even those who are politically engaged — be expected to fully inform themselves about six different candidates running for delegate and then pick out the three they want to send to Annapolis — in addition to some combination of candidates for governor, state Senate, attorney general, comptroller and Congress (not to mention county offices)?

Voters have much more on their minds than their second and third pick for delegate. And we know that very few people, if any, research all six candidates and pick out the best three; instead, they go to the polls and vote for people whom they know little or nothing about. And instead of voting for the best candidate, they typically vote they party line.

This is evident through the 32 three-member, at-large districts. Currently, in those 32 districts, 26 of them have three Democrats in Annapolis; three have three Republicans; and only two (a paltry 6 percent) have split delegations in the State House. This number becomes even more troubling when compared to the 15 districts that are divided into individually represented sub-districts. Out of those 15 districts, eight (or 53 percent) send split delegations to Annapolis.

When given the chance, voters will choose a delegate they feel comfortable with even if it is from the other party. This is why there are Democrats elected from solid Republican areas, places where you would not expect to find a Democratic delegate, such as Allegany, Washington, Harford, Cecil, Wicomico and Worcester counties. In each of those counties, voters cross party lines and vote for at least one delegate from across the aisle. If voters in these counties instead elected delegates from three-member districts, would these candidates still be able to win? It is possible but not nearly as likely, simply because a candidate must cover a much larger area and try to court so many voters from the opposite party.

Look no further than Montgomery County — a very Democratic county but not overwhelming so, like Baltimore City or Prince George's County. In Montgomery County, there are 21 delegates in seven three-member districts, and every single one of them is a Democrat. In a county of such large size — one that gives at least 30 percent of the vote to the Republicans — you would expect at least one moderate Republican would slip into the delegation.

When comparing money spent by all who were elected delegates in 2010, challengers and incumbents alike, the average amount spent by a member of a three-member district was $72,200, while for sub-districts that number shrank by 17 percent. The average for a delegate from a sub-district was $60,700.

Gov. Martin O'Malley and the General Assembly should act to end this antiquated system of three-member districts. Instead, they should create additional sub-districts, which would provide better representation; increase the chances for centrists and moderates to thrive; and reduce the cost to run a successful race, which will allow more people to take a chance at running for delegate and will allow delegates to spend more time doing their jobs instead of constantly raising funds.

Jacob Shade is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. His email is jshade@umd.edu.

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