Abraham Lincoln, arguably the nation's greatest president, said in 1858: "Public sentiment is everything." Apparently, the Maryland General Assembly didn't get the word. This year, it again defied public sentiment by refusing to end gerrymandering, the state's rigged election system.
Just as it has done so many times in the past, the Democrat-led legislature declined to vote on whether to stop — or even just curb — the ability of the party in power to wildly draw congressional districts along partisan lines for political gain.
Polls show overwhelming bipartisan public opposition to gerrymandering. They should: It stacks the deck in elections, breeds voter apathy, produces lawmakers more interested in keeping power than solving problems and contributes to an increasingly partisan and gridlocked Congress. In short, gerrymandering undermines democracy — and voters know it. So do their public servants.
Two years ago, House Speaker Michael Busch, in a moment of candor at a conference in Annapolis on the Continental Congress, expressed misgivings about the state's latest redistricting, which occurred after the 2010 U.S. census. It made Maryland one of the nation's most gerrymandered states. "I did not like the redistricting," Mr. Busch, a Democrat, was quoted as saying by MarylandReporter.com. "I think we could have done a better job."
The House Rules Committee and Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee held hearings in March on a half-dozen bills that would have provided a way to do "a better job." Two of the measures would have set standards for drawing congressional districts, like those now required in state legislative districts. Congressional districts would have had to be compact, contiguous and drawn as much as possible along community lines — rather than along partisan ones that now zigzag through counties, town and cities, making sense only to those seeking to hang onto power.
But Democratic committee leadership not only declined to call a vote on any of the measures, it didn't publicly explain why. Those legislators don't have to. It's clear. They like the status quo.
As a Maryland Democratic fundraiser told me: "Sure, gerrymandering stacks the deck (in elections). But it stacks in our favor."
Consider this: In Maryland, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin. But with gerrymandering, Democrats won a disproportionately larger share of the state's eight congressional seats in the 2014 elections. They took seven; Republicans got one.
Across the country, gerrymandering cuts both ways. While it helps Democrats or Republicans in some states, it hurts them in others. In the 2012 elections, Democrats got 1.4 million more votes than Republicans in the 435 House races combined. But thanks largely to gerrymandering, Republicans won the most seats, 234-201.
Over the years, stretching back decades, there have been repeated attempts in the General Assembly to end gerrymandering. But all failed. Key Maryland Democrats say they will stop gerrymandering only when other states end theirs. About a dozen states have moved to stop or reduce congressional gerrymandering. But it still persists in most states. It's time for Maryland to do the right thing: End gerrymandering and urge others to do likewise. People of all political stripes have a stake in this fight. Fair and open elections would impact everything from tax reform to environmental protection to faith in the electoral process.
The best chance for redistricting reform in Maryland now rests in a plan by the new governor, Republican Larry Hogan, to create a commission to study the problem and recommend answers. Let's hope the commission comes up with effective recommendations. And let's hope that the Maryland General Assembly finally responds to public sentiment — and votes next year to make such recommendations law.
It would please Ol' Abe.
Thomas Ferraro is a resident of Davidsonville, a former congressional correspondent for Bloomberg and then Reuters, and a member of a nonpartisan coalition of good-government groups dedicated to reining in gerrymandering in Maryland. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.