The writer, a Democrat, was a member of the Montgomery County Council from 1998 to 2014 and executive director of Common Cause Maryland from 1988 to 1994.
In their Jan. 1 op-ed, “The way out of partisan gridlock,” former Senate majority leaders Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) advocated more compromise, better relations among lawmakers, leadership and vision — important things, but insufficient to end the polarization that has defined recent U.S. Congresses. Although they acknowledged that “More money than ever is flooding the system” and that “Our political process is rewarding the extremes,” Lott and Daschle failed to recommend reforms that would cure these cancerous problems.
The current political dysfunction can be fixed only by fundamentally reforming our elections — ending gerrymandering; providing public financing for candidates to break the viselike grip of special interest groups on politicians and public policy; and allowing all voters to participate in primary elections. These reforms would impel candidates to appeal broadly to their constituents rather than cater to the super-rich, to well-organized special interest groups and to the most ideological partisans.
Given the incentives of the present system, elected officials who behave like rabid partisans are acting deplorably but rationally to protect themselves from attacks from the left or right in closed primaries that are often dominated by highly ideological party members. Because of atrocious gerrymandering of congressional districts by lawmakers in almost all states, more than 85 percent of House districts are “safe” for one major party or the other.
Lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia are among the worst offenders. They have rigged congressional elections by treating their own constituents as pawns for partisan advantage. Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District looks like blood spatter from a crime scene, zigzagging from Annapolis to Towson to Olney and excluding or splitting most communities in between. Steve Shapiro, a Bethesda resident and law student, deserves the thanks of hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Maryland voters for persuading the Supreme Court to require that a three-judge panel decide the fate of the state’s disgraceful map. Virginia lawmakers have drawn such one-sided legislative districts that most winning General Assembly candidates in 2011, 2013 and 2015 didn’t face an opponent from the other major party, even though Virginia is a purple state.
To his credit, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) appointed a bipartisan commission last year to advise on how best to prevent gerrymandering. It recommended that an independent panel be created to draw district lines based on standards for fair districts, such as compactness and avoiding splitting cities and towns. The General Assembly now has a historic opportunity to protect voters from being disenfranchised by adopting this plan. Yet some lawmakers defend the continued rigging of elections as long as states controlled by the other major party continue rigging them as well. They sound like disgraced athletes who justify using performance-enhancing drugs because others do it too.
Eliminating gerrymandering would clearly lead to more competitive general elections and higher voter turnout, but it cannot address the excessive influence of big money in politics, a problem that has been exacerbated by recent Supreme Court decisions. That would require making matching public funds available to candidates who demonstrate that they have significant public support. Such funding would increase competition and voter participation while reducing the influence of special-interest money in elections and on policy.
In 2014, the Montgomery County Council created a public financing system for county council and executive elections that provides the nation’s strongest incentives for candidates to seek small individual donations from residents. Under this law, which I sponsored while serving on the council, a $50 contribution will generate a public matching contribution of $200 for council candidates who qualify for public funding, who agree to accept only individual contributions of $150 or less, and who forgo contributions from political action committees, corporations, unions and political parties. Maryland has a public financing system for gubernatorial races, which Hogan used in his 2014 upset victory. That fund is all but empty; Hogan has a responsibility to work to restore it.
Finally, to end gridlock we need to open up our primaries. Millions of registered independents are disenfranchised because most primaries are not open to them. Knowing that the most ideological party members tend to dominate closed primaries, candidates have a strong incentive to pander to those voters. In contrast, in California, where all candidates run in the same primary and all registered voters can take part, it’s in the interest of candidates to broaden their messages. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) is a notable proponent of open primaries, which could increase turnout more and faster than any other reform.
Compromise, leadership and vision are all well and good, but ending gridlock and political polarization requires placing the electoral incentives that drive candidates in line with the public interest.