Baltimore's redistricting process needs improvement

It's hard to pass judgment on the Baltimore City Council district plan Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake devised. Some neighborhoods that were split apart before are now united in one district; others that were left whole before are now divided. Some politicians may find themselves in more hospitable districts and some in less friendly ones. In some areas, people are complaining that minorities are unduly concentrated, and in other areas that they are too fragmented. Only time and the election cycle will tell whether the mayor did a good job or a poor one in creating districts that will produce a representative council.

What is certain is that the process is less than ideal. The public often sees the redistricting process as one created by and for politicians, and not without reason. The legislative and congressional district maps drawn by then-Gov. Parris Glendening and the Democratic legislature in 2002 were nakedly political in their aspirations — so much so that the legislative maps were thrown out by the Court of Appeals. Nationally, congressional districting has been so heavily politicized that there is no significant partisan competition for the majority of seats. There may be no perfect system for redistricting, but Baltimore's could certainly be improved.

Baltimore's charter requires the mayor to present a plan for redistricting by Feb. 1 in the first election year after the decennial census. The council then has 60 days to modify or adopt it, otherwise it becomes law automatically. This year, that meant that Ms. Rawlings-Blake had to draw a map before the census data came in, and then to adjust it afterward. A spokesman said she considered a charter amendment that would have pushed back the deadline to avoid that problem, but doing so would have given possible candidates in the September primary too little time to adjust to new district lines.

A City Council committee has been considering the mayor's plan and holding hearings, but they were sparsely attended. This may be an indication that most people are either happy with the mayor's plan or don't care about the issue at all, but whatever the case, it would have made more sense to hold hearings before drawing a map rather than afterward. The mayor has said that she considered complaints she received in the community — for example, from Pigtown, which was split in the previous district maps and is reunited in this one — but an ad hoc process is not the same as seeking formal input.

Finally, the chief complaint about the mayor's new maps is the accusation that she drew them to favor her political allies, a charge she disputes. Nothing in her proposal is so obvious as, for example, the Baltimore County redistricting of 2002, in which the two members of the County Council least popular with their peers were lumped into the same district, or in Mr. Glendening's legislative maps in which then-Sens. Clarence M. Mitchell IV and George W. Della were drawn into in a district that stretched from West Baltimore to Dundalk. But politicians are masterful analysts of the benefits or drawbacks of moving the lines one block this way or that, and a system that starts and ends with them is bound to breed suspicion.

A better system is the one adopted in Baltimore County after a citizen uproar over the process in 2002. There, a committee appointed by the council is now beginning to hold hearings and will develop a map that becomes law unless the council adopts or alters it. Such a system, which is similar to ones used in other Maryland counties, doesn't guarantee that politics won't affect the drawing of the lines. After all, the ones doing it are appointed by politicians. But it does at least afford some degree of separation from those with self-interest in the outcome, and it adds some transparency to the process.

As for the issue of timing in Baltimore, it is a problem caused by the city's odd election cycle. Although city legislators and some other officials are elected during gubernatorial election years, city offices, like mayor and the council, are decided a year later. That means that every 20 years, the timing of the census and the primary election calendar are incompatible. There is no particularly good reason why city elections are on an off-year cycle, and plenty of reasons why they shouldn't be — mainly, that it leads to lower turnout and costs the city extra money. Baltimore has until 2031 before this will be a problem again, plenty of time to synchronize its elections with the rest of the state.

There may be no way to make redistricting perfectly objective and rational. Witness some of the curious decisions the Court of Appeals made when it redrew Mr. Glendening's maps in 2002, such as the apparent rule it devised that no legislative districts may cross the boundary between Baltimore City and Baltimore or Anne Arundel counties, but that boundary-crossing anywhere else is OK. Nonetheless, Baltimore's process can be improved. Once the new district maps are approved, city leaders should turn their attention to reforming the system by which they are adopted.

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