October 29, 2011

MARYLAND’S NEW congressional district map won’t shift the U.S. House of Representatives to Democratic control. At most, it could add a seventh Democrat to the six who dominate the state’s eight-member House delegation. Nonetheless, it may make Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley a candidate for what might be called the Tom DeLay Honorary Gerrymandering Medal, named for the former House majority leader whose brazen manipulation of the electoral map in Texas made roadkill of incumbents from the rival party.

The map, drafted under Mr. O’Malley’s watchful eye, mocks the idea that voting districts should be compact or easily navigable. The eight districts respect neither jurisdictional boundaries nor communities of interest. To protect incumbents and for partisan advantage, the map has been sliced, diced, shuffled and shattered, making districts resemble studies in cubism.

A fountainhead of reliable Democratic votes, Montgomery County, was carved into three jagged pieces, each used to offset and outweigh Republican territory elsewhere. This may fortify the county’s clout, enabling it to send two residents to Congress rather than one. But the resulting cartological contortions are comic.

From a chunk of northern Maryland near Pennsylvania, Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s 8th District will snake south into Montgomery to pick up precincts around the Capital Beltway. The 6th District will stretch almost 200 miles from the state’s westernmost hinterlands nearly to Bethesda — the better to remove Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a 20-year Republican incumbent. Rep. John Sarbanes’s 3rd District will link a crooked splinter of northwestern Montgomery with random scraps of land in and around Baltimore and Annapolis, plus disconnected peninsulas along Chesapeake Bay.

This is a disservice to residents. A separate matter is whether it’s an injustice to the state’s minorities. That question has been raised by 4th District Rep. Donna Edwards and Montgomery County Council President Valerie Ervin, both African American Democrats, as well as by the state’s Republican Party. They argue that by balkanizing Montgomery, where minorities make up a narrow majority, as well as other minority-heavy areas, the new map dilutes the influence of black and Hispanic voters and prevents establishing a third district dominated by minorities.

Granted, the argument is a bit rich coming from Republicans, who have done everything possible in other states to minimize the influence of minority voters. It’s also self-interested, since packing minority voters into three relatively undiluted Democratic districts would likely also add one Republican seat. Still, the Justice Department, which has been asked to examine the complaint, should do so on the merits.

Ms. Edwards is understandably upset to lose her minority-rich base in Silver Spring and receive instead the mostly white, more conservative precincts in Anne Arundel County. Nonetheless, the 4th will remain a majority-black district.

What’s more, it will consolidate more voters in Prince George’s County, meaning that the state’s largest majority-black jurisdiction may be able to speak with a louder voice on Capitol Hill, one reason County Executive Rushern L. Baker III supports the map.

Federal officials or the courts will ultimately judge whether Mr. O’Malley’s plan is illegal under the Voting Rights Act. The broader question is whether it promotes fair and rational democracy. Anyone looking at the map can answer that one.