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The progressive case for redistricting reform

The progressive case for redistricting reform
Eric H. Holder Jr. served as U.S. attorney general from 2009 to 2015. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

Democrats in Maryland may be heartened to hear this piece of news about former President Barack Obama from his close friend, Eric Holder: "He's ready to roll."

Specifically, the former president is looking into ways to support Mr. Holder's nationwide effort to end gerrymandering, the former attorney general said recently. Mr. Holder is heading the new National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which will pursue legislative action, ballot initiatives or court cases to ensure fairer drawing of congressional and legislative district lines. The rationale is that more fairly drawn districts will produce elected officials who better represent their constituents —and, not so incidentally, that Democrats will have a much better chance of recapturing the House of Representatives under such a system than they do now.

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But that puts Democrats in the General Assembly in a bit of an awkward position, as they again greet with skepticism Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal to end Maryland gerrymandering and vest redistricting powers in the hands of an independent, non-partisan commission. The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the governor's proposed constitutional amendment last week, and most Democrats on the panel appraised the idea with something just short of hostility.

The issue is not that the Democrats made a pro-gerrymandering argument. On the contrary, they generally acknowledged the governor's basic point that voters should get to pick their representatives, not the other way around. Their objection, though often couched in gentler terms, was a nakedly partisan one: Why should Maryland give up the ability to draw districts to advantage Democrats when other states controlled by Republicans aren't doing the same?

The Democratic alternative to Governor Hogan's proposal is a bill calling for a multi-state, regional compact to adopt such commissions. Maryland would adopt a process more or less like the one Governor Hogan is proposing if and only if Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina do the same. It has 26 co-sponsors in the Senate. Supporters say that Maryland would be exercising leadership in passing such a bill and that it would pressure other states to follow.

In reality, that's a recipe for nothing changing here or elsewhere. Maryland was a leader in establishing a national compact to award electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote. Ask Hillary Clinton how well that turned out.

Democrats in the hearing also complained that Governor Hogan has not formally supported U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen's effort to set national standards limiting gerrymandering. Fair enough; there's no reason why he shouldn't. But clearly, the governor recognizes the same thing that President Obama and Mr. Holder do, which is that the chances of national redistricting reform passing Congress are virtually nil and that any progress must be made on a state-by-state level. If Democrats aren't willing to take a principled stand in a state where, realistically, one or two seats are on the line, what makes them think Republicans in a more populous and equally gerrymandered state like North Carolina will do so?

In a recent speech at the Center for American Progress discussing his initiative, Mr. Holder couched his opposition to gerrymandering in the same terms as his efforts to fight restrictive voter ID laws, attacks on the Voting Rights Act and other attempts to limit the franchise. "Fairer maps aren't just good for the Democratic Party," he said. "They are good for our democracy. They are good for the American people." Changing the status quo is "an effort we want all 50 states involved in," he said.

To be sure, there is a partisan edge to his work. The premise of his effort is that Republicans have been more successful in drawing the lines to their advantage than Democrats have, owing largely to the resources they poured into controlling state houses and governors' mansions in the lead-up to the last round of redistricting after the 2010 census. Consequently, his immediate strategy involves getting more Democrats elected to those offices in the next few years. "Our goal is to make sure that Democrats are in a position to ensure fair and representative electoral districts," he said.

Of course, that assumes Democrats would create a system to produce such districts if given the chance. It's up to the members of his party in Annapolis to prove him right.

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