There’s nothing particularly pretty about the latest round of maps carving up Maryland’s eight congressional districts — even by preschool finger-painting standards. The shapes fashioned in the four entries produced by a legislative redistricting committee last week are sensible in the rural periphery (the Eastern Shore, Southern Maryland and Western Maryland stay intact), but in the central part of the state, they swirl like the artist dropped her colors by accident. This was no mischance, however; the results were carefully crafted. Congressional redistricting in Maryland has long been a purely political process with two overriding goals — to help the majority party’s incumbents (or likely successors) get elected and to help the national party’s overall numbers in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Are people shocked by this? Some surely pretend to be. That list includes Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, who, with an apparent straight face, issued a statement claiming that this wasn’t business as usual but an attempt by Democrats to “seize back control from the citizens” of the redistricting process. What he meant was that it didn’t follow the lines that his own hand-picked group of Marylanders issued just two weeks earlier. There’s nothing wrong with his commission, by the way. Its proposal is at least less swirly. But, as others have noted, the governor’s preferred map would also likely result in Maryland Democrats losing at least one House seat to the GOP, turning their current 7-1 advantage to 6-2. Gee, wonder if the governor noticed. How remarkably not shocking that Democratic leaders in the legislature who have primary control over this process are reluctant to go that route.
None of this is to excuse gerrymandering, whether it’s practiced by Democrats or by Republicans. In a perfect world, congressional districts would be drawn as compactly as possible and without regard to what any particular politician might gain or lose. They’d respect existing geographic and political boundaries and would not dip and dive like octopus tentacles. Of course, they’d also be careful not to discriminate on the basis of race, which means districts would be drawn in certain instances to improve opportunities to elect African American candidates, as the Voting Rights Act stipulates. The problem is that the process by which states outside Maryland redraw congressional districts is far from perfect, as well.
For those who do not follow the sausage-making of redistricting, take a look at what’s been happening in states like North Carolina, where, despite voter registration split almost 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, the GOP-controlled state legislature is monkeying with maps to put 10 House seats in their hands (they currently have 8 of 14). Wisconsin, its legislature also controlled by Republicans, is similarly gerrymandering away. There are many others. In all, the legislatures in about two-thirds of states play the dominant role in congressional redistricting. In the rest, there are independent redistricting commissions that handle the role or some hybrid version of the two.
Maryland is majority Democratic, by far. It serves this state’s interests for Democrats to maintain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives — and not just because Baltimore native Nancy Pelosi holds the top spot or that U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Prince George’s County is second as majority leader. On issue after issue, from health care to public education to the rights of women, Marylanders are simply more likely to be in tune with the political positions of Democrats than of Republicans. So putting an end to gerrymandering altogether in Maryland would be the equivalent of laying down our political arms in hopes that everyone else (including those on the other side of the aisle) will do the same.
And who thinks that’s going to happen?
We absolutely concede that gerrymandering has made partisanship worse whether on Capitol Hill or in State Circle. But that is an argument for ending the practice for everyone, not just the guilt-ridden. Even preschoolers know that fairness demands that the rules apply to all, not just those holding the blue paint or thinking happier thoughts.
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