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Hogan swats down 'phony' redistricting reform

Gov. Larry Hogan is absolutely right: Democratic lawmakers' bill to reform Maryland's redistricting process only if five other states do the same was nothing more than an effort to make the issue go away without actually doing anything. Letting it become law would have muddied the issue and diminished any pressure Democrats might feel to take the drawing of legislative and congressional district lines out of self-interested, partisan hands.

Was there some political motivation to the governor's decision to veto the bill and engage in a little grandstanding? You bet, and we've got no problem with that. Mr. Hogan knows perfectly well that voters agree with him. The most recent Goucher poll found that 73 percent of Marylanders support a system in which an independent commission draws the district lines, a figure that was consistent among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

It also happens to be the right thing to do. The residents of rural Western Maryland have much more in common with those in rural Carroll County than they do with the voters in Montgomery County to whom they were yoked in an effort to give Democrats the edge in the 6th Congressional District after the 2010 census. Likewise, the voters in Carroll who find themselves in the 8th District feel little connection to either of the congressmen from the Washington suburbs who have represented them since the last re-mapping. If there is any common thread between the voters in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery Counties who make up the 3rd Congressional District, we're at a loss to see it.

But the argument that congressional districts should be drawn in such a way to group voters along lines of some common community or geographic interest has been spectacularly unpersuasive among Democratic leaders in Annapolis. Rather, the counter-argument to Governor Hogan's proposal has come in starkly political terms: Why should Maryland give up safe Democratic seats when Republican states aren't doing the same? It's a view crystallized in the bill Governor Hogan just vetoed, and doing the right thing by voters doesn't enter the equation.

The presiding officers of the legislature called their bill "a true, non-partisan solution that could restore accountability and cooperation to Washington." Baloney. It would have accomplished precisely nothing. Redistricting reform is going nowhere in the legislatures of those other states. Virginia lawmakers have been killing annual reform bills for nearly a decade. In North Carolina, legislation to create a non-partisan redistricting commission like the one Iowa has employed for years appears dead as well. As one advocate there put it, the Republicans who now run the legislature won't go for it unless they believe the Democrats will take over both chambers before the lines are redrawn in 2021. Even if Democrats have the majority in one chamber, Republicans would rather be in a position to negotiate than to give up control entirely.

That's about where things stand in Maryland. Governor Hogan is clearly the favorite in the 2018 election, but there's an active and growing field of Democrats ready to challenge him, and it's at least possible that Mr. Hogan's efforts to avoid being linked to Donald Trump won't be able to withstand what might be a powerful backlash against the Republican president in a deep blue state. And even if Mr. Hogan wins, he will have substantial but not total control over the maps.

There is a wild card at play. A lawsuit alleging that Maryland's partisan gerrymander of its congressional districts was unconstitutional is moving forward, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and former Gov. Martin O'Malley — a recent convert to the cause of redistricting reform — have all been deposed in the last few weeks. Meanwhile, a challenge to partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin legislative districts appears likely headed to the Supreme Court, and a pair of cases in North Carolina that combine some of the issues in the Maryland and Wisconsin cases are also moving ahead.

Partisan gerrymandering cases have failed in the past because of the difficulty in setting a standard for what is unacceptable. The Wisconsin plaintiffs have seen success in employing some novel statistical methods to make their case, but the ultimate outcome remains uncertain.

Mr. Hogan's point is that Maryland lawmakers don't need to concern themselves with what might happen in the courts or in some other state's legislature. They have the power in their own hands to do right by Maryland's voters, and no cutesy distractions will suffice.

But because only partisan arguments on this issue seem to appeal to Democrats in the legislature, we offer this. If Democrats want any chance of defeating Mr. Hogan next year, they can't afford to have progressive voters think he's the better choice on any issue, particularly one like this that reinforces his brand as an independent-minded politician. They could put this issue to rest, or they could let him campaign on a cause that appeals to three-quarters of Maryland voters. Their choice.

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