Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote. Austin Plier is a communications and outreach specialist for FairVote.
Maryland is popularly recognized as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, and at least four bills designed to curb gerrymandering were introduced this legislative session, including ones backed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and by legislative leaders. But one bill stood out as an innovative approach that could establish Maryland as a true reform leader.
Change certainly is needed. Maryland’s obviously manipulated congressional districts have produced results that skew in favor of Democrats. Only one of eight seats is held by a Republican, and white male Democrats hold five seats in a state where they make up about a sixth of the voting population. No district is likely to be competitive in November.
But if Maryland acts alone, it will exacerbate the national skew toward Republicans. FairVote projects that Democrats would need some 55 percent of the vote to win a House majority this year. In 2012, Democrats won the popular vote in House races, but Republicans still had a 33-seat advantage.
Many have called for a national solution to gerrymandering, but Maryland does not have to wait. Legislators have a moral obligation to voters to find a state-based solution when one is available. Their best option is SB 762, the Potomac Compact for Fair Representation. Unlike other redistricting reform bills, the Potomac Compact would end a national standoff on redistricting reform by proposing an interstate compact that gives state negotiators the ability to use electoral systems to make such compacts work — for voters and for partisans.
Establishing an interstate compact is key. Maryland Democrats won’t take action that puts Democrats further behind nationally. The bill would initiate a compact to be negotiated with Virginia (with a Republican legislature and gerrymander) and any additional states necessary to make such a compact work. The idea is that any seats Maryland Democrats might lose would be balanced with gains elsewhere. Having a compact would bind states entering the agreement, unlike passage of separate laws that could then be repealed.
The bill also would allow negotiators to truly end gerrymandering through use of multi-winner districts with candidate-based forms of proportional voting. Voters would elect between three and five representatives in larger districts, and like-minded voters would always earn their fair share of seats. Already proven at a local level, such fair representation systems are the only way to ensure true voter choice everywhere in a state and provide a natural means to increase representation of women and people of color.
They also are key to an effective compact because states will have a more reliable understanding of how many seats each party would win in both states. With winner-take-all elections, putting districting in the hands of a commission is no guarantee of proportional outcomes by party. In 2014, for example, California Democrats earned far more seats than the proportional amount of votes would suggest.
Having fair-representation voting means fair outcomes based on voters’ partisan preferences. Maryland Democrats would reliably earn either five or six, not seven, of the state’s eight districts. Virginia Republicans would reliably win between five and seven, rather than eight, of the state’s 11 districts. Partisan ramifications would be a wash over time, but voters in both states would be accurately represented and finally could participate in competitive elections.
The compact points to a better way nationally. Any system of winner-take-all elections will result in most districts being safe for one party and allow one party to win more seats even with fewer votes. To make the “peoples’ house” truly responsive to voters, Congress should pass a statute to require fair-representation plans in all states.
As the only legislative proposal that combines an interstate compact with the possibility of fair-representation voting, the Potomac Compact is the most comprehensive and politically viable redistricting bill on the table in Maryland. Members of the General Assembly have an opportunity to do right by voters while also taking a leading role nationally to resolve the disastrous effects of gerrymandering. It’s time to seize that opportunity and stand up for Maryland voters.