Gerrymandering reform: putting the interests of the people before the party

Gerrymandering is a political assault on the people.

Last week the Supreme Court paved the way for fundamental gerrymandering reform by upholding redistricting commissions that are independent of state legislatures in its decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. Gov. Larry Hogan now has a historic opportunity to lead the way for long overdue fundamental change in congressional redistricting in Maryland.

There is no Maryland law requiring that congressional districts be compact — unlike the state law pertaining to legislative districts. As a result, Maryland's third congressional district looks like blood spatter from a crime scene. It includes the far-flung communities of Towson, Annapolis and Olney, but excludes most of the people in-between. Several of the state's other congressional districts are almost as disjointed.

Gerrymandering is a political assault on the people. Whichever party is in power at the turn of the decade intentionally redraws districts that disempower voters, rig elections and advantage itself and favored candidates of the party's would-be kingmakers. After more than 200 years of this decennial butchering of communities, it is imperative to either stop elected officials from controlling the redistricting process — as Arizona and California have done — or to tie their hands by law with strict, legally enforceable requirements for compactness of congressional boundaries.

A huge challenge in Maryland is that the General Assembly must be persuaded to tie its own hands on redistricting because, unlike Arizona and California, Maryland voters lack the power to make law by placing issues directly on the ballot. Accomplishing this will require voters to generate an extraordinary amount of public pressure on state lawmakers so that future voters are respected rather than dismembered.

Political parties have fundamentally different interests than the public regarding elections. Parties benefit by minimizing competition to their candidates in general elections; the public benefits by maximizing it. The only way to resolve this essential conflict is in favor of the people. The Supreme Court recognized in its landmark decision that the people are the font of political power under the U.S. Constitution, which begins with the (at the time) revolutionary words: We the People.

Elected officials of the party in power shouldn't get to choose their voters, but that is what gerrymandering is all about. The temptation to do so is clearly irresistible, and elected officials of both major parties in state after state have proven over and over that they cannot be trusted with this power.

The expansion of the right to vote was the most catalytic reform in U.S. history. Gerrymandering decimates that right by making voting meaningless in many congressional general elections.

Few would disagree that the current U.S. House of Representatives is the epitome of political dysfunction. However, the problem isn't the members themselves, but the systemic incentives that encourage if not impel them to act like rabid partisans. The way to change that behavior is to change the incentives that drive it.

Legislators who have no effective competition in general elections protect their left and right flanks from primary challenges by voting for more liberal or more conservative measures than they would if they faced real competition in November, and more extreme than the general public favors, leaving the broad swath of voters in the political center in the dust.

Reforming gerrymandering is imperative, but not sufficient alone to bring about truly representative legislative bodies. In addition to eliminating gerrymandering, public financing of campaigns (used by Governor Hogan, but not available to state legislative candidates) to provide candidates with an alternative to big money from the wealthy and from PACs, and opening primaries to all voters comprise the trifecta of political reform that would produce a far more representative Congress and state legislature.

Our political system desperately needs fundamental reform. With the Supreme Court decision, Governor Hogan can confidently lead the charge for the establishment of an independent redistricting commission that would put the interests of the people before the interests of any political party.

Phil Andrews served on the Montgomery County Council for 16 years and is a former executive director of Common Cause Maryland. He was the lead sponsor of Montgomery's partial public financing system for local elections, the state's first. His email is philandrews@verizon.net.

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