DEMOCRATIC LEGISLATIVE leaders in Maryland issued rote rejections of Gov. Larry Hogan’s (R) utterly sensible proposal for congressional redistricting reform last week. In doing so, they were reading from a script that could have been prepared for them by Republican legislative leaders in Richmond, whose equally knee-jerk dismissal of Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) efforts have doomed redistricting reform efforts in Virginia.
So here’s a modest suggestion that would have the novel effect of elevating the interests of voters in each state, not to mention good government, above the partisan self-interest of incumbent politicians. Why don’t Maryland and Virginia initiate a mid-Atlantic reform compact whose overriding goal would be to tip the scales in favor of fair elections and against rigged ones?
A logical starting point for such a compact is the fact that the two states’ political complexions are mirror images — one has a Republican governor stymied by Democratic legislators; the other has a Democratic governor foiled by Republicans. In both cases, elected lawmakers have arrogantly scoffed at reforming the process by which congressional maps are drawn, preferring to gerrymander districts for maximum partisan advantage.
The results are travesties such as Maryland’s 3rd District, which stitches together suburbs of Washington and parts of Baltimore and Annapolis in a tortuous outline that has been variously likened to a “blood spatter from a crime scene,” a “broken-winged pterodactyl” and a praying mantis.
Legislative leaders in Annapolis and Richmond have dismissed reform — constitutional amendments that would establish independent commissions to draw electoral district boundaries in an open and transparent process, without regard to incumbent protection — as a giveaway to the opposing party. (Never mind that several states, including solid blue California and solid red Idaho, have already established independent redistricting commissions that make the procedure more fair and transparent and less a hyper-partisan spectacle.)
If those legislators in both states set out on a coordinated path to reform, it would undercut the partisan excuse that only their opponents would benefit.
Currently, Democrats hold seven of Maryland’s eight congressional seats and Republicans hold eight of Virginia’s 11 — delegations far more lopsided than each state’s electorate. It’s possible that maps drawn by bipartisan or non-partisan commissions might cost Democrats some seats in Maryland, and Republicans some seats in Virginia. But no one could predict which party might make a net gain, or whether either party would.
By contrast, it’s easy to predict that voters would be the winners. Voters, for example, in Maryland’s Anne Arundel County, which, as Mr. Hogan pointed out, is currently sliced and diced into four separate congressional districts so as to dilute the impact of their (mainly) Republican votes. Voters also in Virginia’s 3rd District, which, a federal court has ruled, has been drawn so as to pack together African Americans in order to diminish the impact of their (mainly) Democratic votes.
Both are examples of political games played by incumbents and insiders for their own benefit. Wouldn’t it serve the interests of democracy, for a change, to put voters first?