Take back the maps

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THERE MAY BE virtues associated with allowing politicians in Maryland and most other states to draw the legislative districts from which they run. But merits of the practice don't spring easily to mind.

Far more obvious are its ill effects: gerrymandered districts that decimate communities; seats so safe any nincompoop can win re-election; the rapid disappearance of moderates in both parties, leaving behind extremists unable to reach consensus; and a growing distance between the representative and the represented. As long as lawmakers can raise the money they need to fend off the rare competitive challenger, they needn't bother with constituent contact.

Thus, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal to turn the remapping process in his state over to a panel of retired judges has struck a responsive chord. His high-megawatt star power may draw attention throughout the country to the source of much of the corrosion that is eating away representative democracy - and even provide some clues about how to repair it.

We're under no illusion that Mr. Schwarzenegger's motives are less self-serving than those of any other politician. He's a Republican executive in a state where the legislature is dominated by Democrats. Of course he'd like to break the Democrats' hold on the process by which districts for members of Congress and state legislators are drawn. Maryland's Republican governor probably wouldn't mind a similar opportunity for his party to make gains against dominant Democrats here.

But the long-term benefits of taking redistricting away from the politicians - who with today's technology can craft maps to achieve whatever voting result they want - outweigh concerns about which party gets a short-term advantage. In fact, the worst feature of Mr. Schwarzenegger's proposal is that he wants the change in place for the 2006 elections, when he is up for re-election. His case would be stronger if the process took effect after the 2010 Census, when maps are already scheduled to be redrawn.

Obstacles to reform are formidable. None of the dozen or so states where congressional and/or state legislative maps are drawn by outside panels has produced an ideal process. The best may be Iowa's, which allows the legislature an up-or-down vote on maps drawn by technicians prohibited from using political considerations, such as party representation. That model may not apply, though, in states with larger ethnic populations, where minority representation must be ensured.

Further, voters in Maryland and the majority of states that don't have a ballot initiative must convince legislators to cede their redistricting power.

Even so, Mr. Schwarzenegger is correct that this "rigged" process must be fixed. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's masterful manipulation of the mapping in Texas to squeeze enough Democrats from his delegation to maintain GOP congressional control was a scandal. But no less despicable was the sweetheart deal in California, where the two parties allied to protect the status quo. Of 153 congressional and legislative seats up for grabs there last year, not one flipped to the other party.

Without reform, voters may soon not be involved in elections at all.

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