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Stop rigging elections, Md.

Will Maryland lawmakers stop rigging elections?

Most state lawmakers in Maryland and across the nation have voted for gerrymandered congressional districts to rig elections in favor of their parties' nominees. This has reduced the number of competitive general elections, driven down voter turnout and contributed to gridlock in Congress.

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Heavily criticized and unable to defend gerrymandering on the merits, some Maryland legislators say that they'll stop rigging elections if other states controlled by the other major political party do the same.

When the executive director of Maryland's Democratic party makes that argument, as he has, the public may factor in that his only job is to advance the interests of his party. But when the public's elected officials make that argument, they are failing in their duty to put the public interest before any other. It's hard to think of a bigger cop-out than making doing the right thing contingent on what other people do.

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Legislators have a fundamental conflict of interest in drawing political boundaries and choosing their voters. As in the great majority of states, however, Maryland's congressional districts were drawn by politicians for politicians. California is the most notable exception, where an independent commission draws both congressional and state legislative districts as a result of two voter-approved initiatives. No elected official can serve on California's commission, and state lawmakers cannot change the districts.

The need for redistricting reform in Maryland is at least as pressing as anywhere else in the nation. Maryland's congressional districts are the least compact of all 50 states according to a 2012 analysis by Azavea, a firm that specializes in geographic information. In the 2011 congressional redistricting, Maryland residents were treated as pawns by Annapolis and congressional would-be kingmakers. Dozens of communities across the state were sliced up for purely political purposes. The state's third congressional district looks like blood spatter from a crime scene. It splits most of the communities in between Towson, Annapolis and Olney.

If Maryland's congressional districts had to be compact and avoid dividing municipalities, they would split far fewer communities, there would be more competitive general elections, and voter turnout would increase. More competitive general elections would provide a strong incentive for candidates to appeal to a broad electorate, rather than to the much more narrowly ideological electorate that typically dominates closed party primaries.

In addition to stopping gerrymandering, ending closed party primaries is needed to encourage candidates to appeal to a broad and diverse audience. In California and Washington, all candidates run in one primary, all registered voters can take part, and the top two vote getters move on to the general election.

A third crucially needed reform is public financing for candidates who agree to only accept small individual contributions and meet a threshold requirement. Public financing reduces the excessive influence of political action committees and the super-rich in elections and on public policy. In 2014, the Montgomery County Council approved a public financing system for county council and county executive elections that includes the nation's strongest incentives and matches for small donations from residents.

Maryland's current congressional districts undermine democracy because they bias the outcome of elections for one party by effectively disenfranchising many voters of the other major party. Divided communities make it difficult for voters to band together to have their voices heard by their elected officials. That these harms are inflicted on people by many of their own elected representatives adds insult to injury.

Gov. Larry Hogan deserves credit for following through on a campaign promise to appoint a commission to recommend how to eliminate gerrymandering, and to support legislation to do so. If this much-needed reform is approved and Mr. Hogan is re-elected in 2018, neither he nor his successors would be able to draw political boundaries that disadvantage nominees of other parties.

Perhaps the prospect of being gerrymandered out of office in 2021 if the status quo continues and Governor Hogan is re-elected will motivate some very partisan Democratic legislators to support gerrymandering reform. Otherwise, they risk defining themselves in the history books as the defenders of rigged elections.

Phil Andrews (philandrews@verizon.net), a Democrat, served on the Montgomery County Council from 1998-2014, and as executive director of Common Cause Maryland from 1988-1994. He was the chief sponsor of Montgomery's system for public financing of elections.

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