As Marylanders of a certain age will recall, this state used to have a congressional delegation of mixed political allegiances. Not just Democrats and Republicans, but liberals, moderates and conservatives in either party. Over the last two decades, Democrats in Annapolis have drawn U.S. House of Representatives district lines in such a way that precludes that possibility. This week, Gov. Larry Hogan announced yet another quixotic attempt to reform that practice — the fifth try during his time in office — with a nonpartisan commission that would set the boundaries based not on electing Democrats but on public preference, logic and geography. Presumably, that would mean portions of Carroll County would no longer be lumped in with Somerset County 161 miles away to form the deep-red 1st Congressional District, sole home of Republican congressional representation in this state.
Governor Hogan is surely not wrong. We have endorsed independent redistricting numerous times, too. But the problem is that he’s doomed to failure, and he knows it. For Democrats in the General Assembly to willingly give up this authority would amount to political malpractice. Unless other states, especially states where the GOP has control over redistricting, take the same action, the overwhelming majority of Maryland’s electorate who are registered Democrats would be put at a disadvantage. It would be like a fight where you follow Marquess of Queensberry rules while your opponent is street fighting. You have made the civilized choice and now you are going to get roughed up for doing so. Does Maryland really want to see a House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Donald Trump loyalist, pulling the strings? Because that’s probably the most significant change this reform might accomplish, at least in the short term.
Again, that’s not to suggest the goal of less biased redistricting is wrong, the problem is in how you achieve it. Back when Maryland had a 4-4 split in its House delegation, the political parties were not as polarized as they are today. Sending a Helen Delich Bentley from Baltimore County to the House of Representatives meant you were sending a pro-union Republican. The Eastern Shore’s Wayne Gilchrest was pro-conservation. Montgomery County’s Connie Morella voted with Democrats so often she could never fit in with today’s GOP. In theory, independent redistricting might return the national debate more toward the middle of the road. If enough states joined the effort, and that’s quite a big “if,” both political parties might be more inclined to find common ground.
The debate is not unlike the one surrounding the Electoral College where Republicans hold an advantage because they hold a majority in rural states. Only under this circumstance can a presidential candidate claim a close election when his opponent has bested him by 7 million votes. States can correct this imbalance by apportioning their vote by congressional district, which Maine and Nebraska have done, but there’s been no rush by others. In the case of Maryland, for example, such apportionment would simply have denied Joe Biden one elector, potentially helping thwart the will of a majority of Maryland voters. The solution is either at the national level or from a sufficiently large coalition of states.
Granted, a lot of Democrats aren’t having candid conversations about this problem. They’ll lambaste Rep. Andy Harris for supporting Mr. Trump’s campaign of misinformation over the election results and the resulting assault on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, but the official line on redistricting is essentially this: Tut, tut, we have more important matters to discuss in the halls of the State House. Yet, like it or not, redistricting is coming, and the Republican governor and the Democratic majority are destined to find themselves at odds not only over congressional lines but state legislative districts as well once 2020 Census results are released to the states in April.
We would have more faith in this exercise if lawmakers and the governor were negotiating a possible compromise, but there’s no indication any such thing is happening for congressional or legislative redistricting. Indeed, Mr. Hogan has a penchant for announcing ambitious plans without such consultation even with members of his own party. Some will see this as fierce independence; others as virtue signaling more likely to get him face time on cable news than accomplish anything in the Annapolis. In this case, he’s not wrong on principle, he’s just not invested in a workable strategy for fixing what is clearly a national problem.
This piece is written by The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board. Editorials are the opinion of the Board, which is separate from the newsroom. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.