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Let them eat crabs

While the usual suspects of Maryland politics, the candidates, the fundraisers, the loyalists, the lobbyists and groupies are dining on crabs and beer Wednesday at the annual J. Millard Tawes Crab and Clam Bake in Crisfield, a couple dozen volunteers will converge on Annapolis seeking something that seems always out of season in this state, whether it's summer, winter, spring or fall — congressional districts that aren't drawn like paint splatter.

That the politicos won't be in Annapolis to hear the pleas from the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Maryland and others opposed to gerrymandering at their morning rally on Lawyers Mall probably doesn't matter much. They wouldn't listen anyway.

Actually, that's not quite accurate. In Maryland, Democrats are the primary obstacle to a more sensible redrawing of congressional district lines. Republicans are uniformly opposed to such reforms only in states where they hold a majority and thus get to draw the lines. That puts the Maryland GOP on the side of good government — for now.

Has anyone noticed how oddly shaped those district lines have gotten? The Seventh, Second and Third congressional districts wrap in and around Baltimore in a pattern that could only make sense as a Rorschach test. Let's see: If you squint, one looks like a lobster trying to crawl out of the Chesapeake Bay; another is a pigeon run over by a car as it lies spread-eagle.

It doesn't take that much effort to diagnose the problem. Democrats drew the lines purely to accomplish certain political goals, and fairness wasn't one of them. Keeping incumbents safe and adding a seventh Democrat to the House — by throwing a big chunk of Montgomery County in with Western Maryland — was on their minds.

That mission was accomplished. Thanks, in large part, to those new lines, Rep. John Delaney now occupies the Sixth District seat formerly held by Republican Roscoe Bartlett. And Democrats can trumpet the fact that voters statewide signed off on redistricting by referendum last year when they approved the map petitioned to the November ballot.

But not so fast. The ballot question was phrased in what could generously be described as a misleading fashion and without visual aid: "Establishes the boundaries for the State's eight United States Congressional Districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution." Now who would vote against the census or U.S. Constitution? Not a word (or helpful map) about gerrymandering in there.

And even voting against Question 5 wouldn't have accomplished much in the long run. The Democrats could simply have reconvened in Annapolis and submitted much the same map. So even those who were aware of what the map looked like didn't have much motivation to make a fuss.

The reality is that Maryland's congressional districts don't have to be drawn this way. They could be drawn more compactly and offer some respect to existing boundaries, such as geography or jurisdictional lines. Consider, for instance, the plight of Anne Arundel County that now lies sliced and diced into four different districts. Who in Maryland's congressional delegation is looking out for the interests of Anne Arundel?

What the protesters in Annapolis want is for the General Assembly to appoint a commission to simply study what's been done elsewhere. States such as California, Illinois and Iowa have given the task of drawing congressional districts to either bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions that attempt to look out for voter interests above those of political parties. What harm is there in looking around and perhaps passing some nonbinding recommendation?

That may not be popular with the Democrats partying down in Crisfield, of course. They'll say that Maryland is simply offsetting the gerrymandering that goes on in places like Texas, Arizona or Alabama. If Republicans are going to lock in House seats for the GOP, the theory goes, shouldn't Democrats do the same?

But all that gets Maryland is a ride on the race to the bottom. Conversely, the more states that choose reform, the more pressure that will be brought to bear on other states to do the same. Why not lead the way toward political enlightenment?

One thing's for sure, most anything would be better than the status quo. A 2010 national study rated Maryland's congressional districts among the most gerrymandered in the nation — and that was before the most recent round of contortions. Its state legislative districts fared only slightly better but still made the bottom 10 in the country. Until voters insist on reforms, however, the politicians are likely only to say, "Let them eat crabs," and continue in their feasting.

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