Md. should lead the way on redistricting reform, starting now

It’s time to stop partisan gerrymandering in Maryland and, for that matter, around the country. The Supreme Court agreed in December to review Maryland’s 2011 redistricting (Benisek v. Lamone), along with a Wisconsin redistricting case (Gill v. Whitford). It also stayed a challenge to North Carolina’s districts pending the outcome of the Maryland and Wisconsin cases. It’s clear that if Maryland doesn’t take the matter into its own hands, it’s likely to be decided for the state by the Supreme Court. Redistricting reform is gaining momentum. Last week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the state’s redistricting plan on state law grounds and directed that a new plan be developed by Feb. 15. A citizen movement in Michigan has garnered widespread support and attention.

It cannot be doubted that political gerrymandering is one of the most pernicious practices in a democracy. Moreover, it’s gotten worse over time. With the development of sophisticated computer programs, the gerrymandering practices of cracking, packing and the like have been taken to levels never before experienced. The result in Maryland has been to create a tortured district boundary whose shape has been compared to a fire-breathing dragon. The Maryland 6th Congressional District bears no relationship to geography or city, county or school district boundaries. It is not compact and leaves voters in the district spread across a large swath of the state, with few or no common interests. We have a system where we allow public officials to pick the voters, instead of a system where the voters pick public officials.

More broadly across the country, partisan gerrymandering has polarized our Congress, creating districts where moderate views are always drowned out by views on the fringe. Many U.S. senators and representatives are choosing not to run for re-election due to challenges by more conservative candidates. The result is a government characterized by partisan rancor and gridlock.

There are a variety of alternative approaches, all much better than Maryland’s approach. The Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission recommended a nine-member citizen commission, three each from the Republican and Democratic parties, and three non-aligned citizens. The objectives of the commission would be to form districts that are compact and contiguous, and respect county and municipal boundaries. States that have already moved in this direction include Iowa, Washington, Arizona, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Iowa, which has had a non-partisan approach to setting district boundaries since 1980, produces compact, contiguous districts that take account of city and county lines. As a result, Iowa also has meaningful electoral contests.

Iowa gives redistricting responsibility to a nonpartisan state agency, which also manages the state library, computer services and legal drafting. By law the agency must start with population equality: one person, one vote. It is also required to, where possible, respect the boundaries of political subdivisions — counties and cities — and is required to establish districts that are compact, defined as "square, rectangular, or hexagonal ... and not irregularly shaped.” The agency is barred from considering voter registration data, previous election results, office holder’s addresses and population data other than census headcounts. As a result, Iowa has a mix of Republican and Democratic representatives, and the races for the seats are competitive.

Maryland can achieve similar results, and that’s what its citizens want. According to a February 2017 Goucher College poll, 73 percent of residents want an independent commission to establish districts, versus only 20 percent who want to retain the status quo. While it may be less scientific, an ongoing poll conducted on the web site ISideWith.com finds that 79 percent of Maryland voters want an independent, non-partisan commission to draw the lines. As a Democrat, I am embarrassed that our Democratic Party representatives have taken the position that nothing can change in Maryland until the rest of the country changes, calling it “unilateral disarmament.” That strikes me as simply a delaying tactic designed to preserve their own power. We need, and can have, change now. Let’s do what’s right, rather than what’s politically expedient.

Robert Frantz is a retired attorney; his email is rfrantz50@gmail.com.

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