August 20, 2011

REDRAWING POLITICAL maps has become such a raw and overtly partisan exercise that it seems almost pollyanna-ish to observe that it turns democracy upside down and disserves voters. But really, that’s almost the good news.

In fact, the effects are even more insidious: By planting more and more districts firmly in the camp of one party or the other, the process, abetted by computer wizardry and the hard-line leanings of both parties’ primary voters, leads directly to uncompromising, line-in-the-sand politicians. Partisan redistricting is a recipe for political paralysis, as the nation saw in this summer’s debt ceiling drama.

Undeterred, Maryland Democrats, who enjoy the political upper hand in the Free State, are busy mapmaking this summer, the better to score a cartographic coup d’etat when the General Assembly convenes this fall for a special session on redistricting. The Democrats already control six of the state’s eight seats in the House of Representatives; their intent is to grab a seventh.

Armed with the most recent census numbers, the party’s grandees are angling to fashion a map that weakens one of the state’s two Republican incumbents: Rep. Andy Harris, the first-term member who represents the Eastern Shore, or Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a 20-year veteran whose district stretches almost the entire length of Maryland’s border with Pennsylvania.

As even a cursory glance at Maryland’s current congressional map illustrates, the state’s district lines are so tortuously drawn as to be almost comical.

Fashioned by Democrats in 2001 after the last census, the map pays little heed to counties and communities and dilutes Republican votes where possible by dispersing them among districts. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties as well as the city of Baltimore are each split among three districts, the better to use each one’s treasure trove of Democratic voters to maximum advantage. The 2nd Congressional District — curlicue territories strung together by impossibly delicate tendrils of land — is a crazy-quilt confection drawn for the express purpose of ousting the incumbent at the time, Rep. (and later Gov.) Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and installing C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat who still holds the job.

It would be nice to think that the new map would minimize such shenanigans; it would also be naive. A redistricting committee appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, is crisscrossing the state gathering the views of citizens. The panel’s five members include just one Republican, but in any event it is little more than a dog and pony show.

In the end, Democrats intend to draw a map that serves their purposes, choosing the voters they want and excluding the ones they don’t. The debates that count will be among Democrats jockeying for comparative advantage; Republican voices will scarcely be heard. And no one should be surprised when the district lines end up even more crooked and cockeyed than they are now, nor when elections become even less competitive than they already are.

There is a better way of doing things. About a dozen states have established nonpartisan or bipartisan commissions to draw electoral maps, and studies suggest that elections have become more competitive in those states. Competitive districts tend to favor more moderate candidates, at the expense of ideologues of all stripes. That alone would be an important step in the direction of compromise and a workable political system.