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Redistricting for and by the people

California's redistricting model may be the right one for Maryland.

Maryland almost certainly will not enact reforms to the way it redraws legislative and congressional districts this year because the most powerful proponent of the idea, Gov. Larry Hogan, isn't pushing it. He wants a commission to study the issue and provide advice on the best way to remove partisan politics from the process, and given the variety of reforms other states have tried in that vein, his approach makes sense. But he'd better not wait for long, otherwise the unique conditions that make this reform possible will soon evaporate.

Many of the Democrats who control Maryland's General Assembly would probably agree philosophically that district lines should be drawn without party politics in mind, and few would be willing to mount a defense of the state's Congressional districts, which are generally considered among the nation's most gerrymandered. But the reason reform efforts have gone nowhere in the past is that the Democratic powers that be viewed them as unilateral disarmament in the face of aggressive gerrymandering in Republican-dominated states. Indeed, a number of Democratic lawmakers have explicitly suggested that Maryland should not enact such reforms unless it could recruit a buddy state dominated by Republicans to make an offsetting switch at the same time. That's another way of saying it's never going to happen.

But we're now in a brief window in which it would actually be to the advantage of both parties in this state to reform the redistricting process. If Governor Hogan is re-elected, he will control the redistricting process after the 2020 census. He could conceivably have some effect on the partisan balance in the state's congressional delegation, easily reducing the Democrats' current 7-1 advantage by one seat and probably more. But because the state constitution stipulates that the governor's legislative redistricting plan goes into effect automatically unless the House and Senate can agree on an alternative within 45 days, a second-term Governor Hogan could potentially have a large and lasting effect on the balance of power in the General Assembly — perhaps enough for Republicans to sustain a filibuster in the Senate.

Since it is impossible now for either party to know who will control the governor's mansion in 2020, both Republicans and Democrats have every incentive to make the redistricting process as neutral as possible. As soon as one side or the other senses a real advantage heading into the next election, its willingness to work on the issue will evaporate, and after the 2018 election, forget about it. That makes next year the most likely time for such a reform to succeed.

It is valuable, though, that several lawmakers have introduced bills this year for various forms of redistricting reform. We are particularly intrigued by Republican Del. Robert L. Flanagan's proposal for a citizens' redistricting commission chosen by lottery from a pool of applicants. The idea is modeled after a reform California enacted via referendum in time for the redistricting following the 2010 census, and although it has not satisfied the hopes of all redistricting reform proponents, its results are promising.

The 2012 elections in California saw unusual degrees of turnover in both the legislature and state congressional delegation, as the redistricting commission was much less inclined than politicians would be to take incumbency into account when drawing the lines. But some advocacy groups have complained that the resulting districts are not truly more competitive but still offer a reliable advantage to one party or the other.

But that's not entirely the point. The complaint with gerrymandering is not simply that it produces non-competitive elections but that it has the effect of dividing communities to the advantage of politicians, not voters. To the extent that like-minded people tend to cluster together, districts that respect natural community boundaries may not necessarily produce competition between the parties. Moreover, the issue is not just whether one party has an advantage but what sort of candidate can succeed, and early evidence from California suggests that recent electoral reforms there have led to a resurgence of centrism in what was previously considered among the most ideologically polarized legislatures in the nation.

A 2014 report from the Schwarzenegger Institute at the University of Southern California found a significant drop in partisan polarization in the state's legislature based on members' voting patterns and an overall trend toward moderation. Researchers were unable to conclusively show that the new redistricting process was responsible for the change because California simultaneously enacted other reforms, including open primary voting and a system in which the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general, regardless of partisan affiliation. Reforms like those would be welcome here, but they might be a harder sell in Maryland, where voters cannot force them into effect through the referendum process. Nonetheless, there is reason to think that the radical removal of elected officials from the process of drawing voting lines would help produce candidates who are more broadly representative of the communities they serve.

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