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Marylanders want redistricting reform; will they get it?

It is widely acknowledged that Maryland has one of the most gerrymandered congressional maps in the United States. It begs for a rational solution, yet redistricting reform is a subject mainly discussed by policy wonks — obscure to most people and not likely to stir much public passion.

Without a groundswell of voters demanding change, Maryland lawmakers are not likely to give up the power they currently wield to protect their incumbency. And that has immense and negative implications for our democracy.

Fixing the redistricting problem will not be easy given the one-party dominance of the state legislature and the unusual pleas of some Democratic lawmakers that they will only support redistricting reform here if neighboring Virginia — with a Republican advantage in its congressional delegation — does the same.

But a new statewide poll commissioned by the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University shows public interest in redistricting reform in Maryland is actually very strong, whereas in Virginia it is lukewarm at best. If public opinion is any guide, the two-state solution proposed by some Maryland Democrats has no chance.

Maryland can clean only its own house, not Virginia’s. So let’s discuss what is realistic.

The poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy, asked Maryland voters if they would support or oppose a proposal to transfer the job of redistricting from the General Assembly to an independent, non-partisan board.

Statewide, 65 percent of respondents said they support the proposal for the independent redistricting board. Only 19 percent were opposed and 16 percent undecided.

Support was strong in all regions of the state, with only Prince George’s County registering less than majority in favor. Support was highest in Baltimore County, at 73 percent.

Voters identifying themselves as Republicans gave the strongest support for reform (77 percent), with a majority of Democrats (59 percent) and independents (65 percent) also in favor. Gov. Larry Hogan’s push for redistricting reform clearly has strong bi-partisan appeal.

The idea had stronger support from white voters (72 percent vs. 49 percent support from African-Americans) and men (70 percent vs. 61 percent support from women.)

Given the partisan composition of the state, these findings are not surprising, as Republicans would stand to benefit from having an independent, non-partisan board doing redistricting. In neighboring Virginia, support for redistricting reform came from liberal Northern Virginia, most strongly from African-Americans and women, and was widely opposed by Republican-leaning voters. Go figure.

Lawmakers are not likely to change their ways unless motivated voters demand it.

Here’s why people should care about redistricting.

New boundaries for state legislative and congressional districts are drawn every 10 years, based on population growth and shifts revealed in the decennial U.S. Census.

Partisan gerrymandering occurs when the political party in control redraws district boundaries, strategically aggregating like-minded voters into election districts and/or relocates district lines to put the opposition at a disadvantage (such as drawing an opposition lawmaker right out of his or her legislative district, a favorite trick of lawmakers over the years.)

Gerrymandering is the reason why election districts often seem so oddly shaped, cutting across city and county boundaries, snaking across the countryside to include some neighborhoods and exclude others. There’s hardly a worse drawn legislative district in the U.S. than the 3rd Congressional District of Maryland.

Gerrymandering worsens the rigid, shrill partisanship that has taken root in U.S. politics, as lawmakers become more beholden to the most extreme elements of their parties distilled into separate red and blue districts. Gerrymandering thus makes political compromise between the parties almost impossible to achieve on many key issues.

Both parties are guilty of gerrymandering in the United States. When one party gains control of a state legislature, it uses powerful new computer programs to weaponize voter data, carving out usually safe legislative havens for its nominees.

There are sincere proponents of redistricting reform in the state legislature, but as is typically the case it is hard to light a fire under an idea that will give some political ground to the minority party.

The next redistricting is scheduled for 2021. In legislative terms, that’s right around the corner. It’s long past time to fix this problem.

But here’s the challenge: Can a minority party state governor, even an unusually popular one, gain traction on this issue in a tough reelection year?

Chances are this issue will not ignite the electorate in Maryland this year, although the survey of statewide opinion suggests there is a majority potentially there to be mobilized for reform.

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Email: mrozell@gmu.edu.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad

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