2010 election stakes: Drawing a line

Nothing government does is more eye-glazing than redistricting. It's the ultimate insider game, a job-protection racket for politicians. But before you turn the page, consider this: The power being handed to Maryland's next governor won't merely determine which legislators represent you. It will help mold the kind of government we get — and whether Washington, in particular, will continue along the same sad, counterproductive path that has slowed progress and alienated tens of millions of citizens.

A quick look back at recent history helps explain why.

Ten years ago, Maryland's delegation in the House of Representatives was split right down the middle: four from each party, including a trio of Republicans regarded as national centrists: Wayne T. Gilchrest, Constance A. Morella and, yes, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Today, by contrast, all but one Marylander in Congress is a Democrat and only one can be considered a true centrist.

Credit, or blame, for this devolution can largely be traced to the man who held the pen the last time that lines were drawn. Parris N. Glendening, a Democratic governor, saw an opportunity to put his party ahead, and he took it.

Like every state, Maryland must redraw congressional boundary lines every 10 years to reflect population shifts identified by the decennial U.S. Census count. Mr. Glendening produced a masterwork. After the 2000 Census, computers were enlisted to lay out districts designed to maximize the power of the Democratic Party and reward its incumbent politicians (punishing political enemies was also said to have played a part).

The governor's political handiwork had a price. Districts meandered all over the map, patchwork-fashion, often with no regard for existing political subdivisions or communities of interest. Baltimore County, for instance, got chopped up and placed in no fewer than five separate congressional districts. Still, the plan met the rather lax requirements for a lawful congressional map. Courts, in a nod to the fact that redistricting is a political process, care mainly that districts all have virtually the same population and that voting rights of minorities are protected.

From the perspective of Maryland's reigning Democrats, the current plan has exceeded expectations. The first election under the new map, in 2002, tipped two longtime Republican seats to Democrats (Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Chris Van Hollen, who continue to hold them). Democrats, with a 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans in statewide voter registration, suddenly had a 3-to-1 advantage in House districts.

Remarkably, in 2008, Democrats picked up a seventh seat, after a Republican primary uprising helped Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr. take the district that Mr. Gilchrest represented. In office, Mr. Kratovil has been less likely to vote the party line than any other Maryland congressmen of either party. His centrist record reflects the fact that he occupies the only House seat in the state that isn't a mortal lock for the current incumbent and that he'll need the votes of those in the middle to keep it. If he does win re-election, Democratic politicians can be expected to consider redrawing the lines next year to help preserve their lopsided 7-to-1 advantage.

The cost, to the state and the country, of these power games isn't always so easy to see. But in politics, as in other areas, competition is extremely healthy. It's an antidote to complacency and corruption, and a foundation of good government.

Incumbents already enjoy huge advantages under the current system. Once elected, they become magnets for cash contributions from special interests, which makes re-election campaigns easier to finance and seats easier to defend. Taxpayers provide them a large personal staff and a generous communications budget, which facilitates self-promotion and improves re-election prospects.

When, on top of this, their cronies at the State House draw lines specifically designed to help them politically, it's no surprise that critics view redistricting as little more than a way of rigging the system for the benefit of those who already hold office.

Even worse, though, is the damage that computer-driven, partisan redistricting has done to the country. Incumbents must do little more than keep their noses clean and satisfy the most active members of their own party to stay in office. Winning renomination to seats that aren't competitive in November is how most members of Congress of both parties keep their jobs.

That pushes both Democratic and Republican lawmakers toward the extremes of left and right. And it is a major contributor to the vanishing center in American politics — the dwindling number of men and women in the middle of Congress, whose votes on legislation often require the sort of compromises that prevent stalemate and make progress possible.

It doesn't have to be this way. Not every state gives entrenched politicians the power to protect selfish interests at the expense of the greater good. Iowa has a largely nonpartisan redistricting system, which forbids taking political party affiliation into account when drawing lines. It's even against state law to create a district that favors an incumbent. (In Maryland, such a system would doubtless chill the seven House incumbents, Democrat and Republican, whose district lines helped spare them a competitive challenge this November.) The result in Iowa, not surprisingly, has been some of the most competitive — and least corrupt — politics anywhere in the country.

It is probably too much to think, in today's hyperpartisan, me-first politics, that Maryland would ever move to such a sensible system. A process that ignored partisanship would cost some incumbents their jobs and might disadvantage the party in power. But the benefits to Maryland and its people would be more than worth it.

At the very least, the 2010 candidates for governor should lay out their thoughts on drawing new legislative lines — for the General Assembly, as well as congressional districts. Last time, a Democratic governor packed a five-member redistricting advisory committee with politicians from his own party, including the heads of both houses of the General Assembly. What's the next governor's plan? Voters deserve to have some idea about whether Maryland will become part of the solution or remain part of the problem for the next decade.

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