Political Redistricting — Inherently Unfair

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 13, 2018 — Warning to good-government types, Gov. Larry Hogan and others demanding non-partisan re-drawing of political districts for Congress: No matter how you slice it, re-districting will remain inherently unfair.

That’s the dilemma the Supreme Court faces as it considers whether to step in as it once did and lay down rules for re-districting.

How do you take a state with 5.7 million people (2010 Census), divide the state into eight districts each containing 721,529 people, and make everyone happy? It is Mission Impossible.Political Redistricting -- Inherently UnfairAdd in the complicity of computer-generated map gyrations and district configurations start to look like an out-of-control jigsaw puzzle.

There is no easy fix, though some would have us believe a non-partisan commission can wave a magic wand and congressional boundaries will be fair and impartial.

Don’t drink that Kool-Aid.

Even a de-politicized group (if such an animal exists) will produce distorted districts that unfairly discriminate against population groups — Republicans, Democrats, independents, minorities, rural or urban residents. Some counties, cities and communities will be torn apart no matter how you dice those eight districts.

It is inevitable. You will never please everyone.

Right now, Republicans want to re-jigger the congressional maps to gain at least one additional seat in Maryland by packing the 6th Congressional District with Western Maryland Republican voters and strip out all those Democrats who live in the district’s southern portion in Montgomery County.

New-Era Segregation?

That’s not a bipartisan notion. It’s a one-party plan — a new form of segregated map-drawing  favoring one political party to give Maryland a district that is all rural and nearly all white.

Such a move also would pack more minority voters into districts in the Baltimore-Washington megalopolis — more politically imposed segregation.

Western Maryland Republicans in their lawsuit claim they are being discriminated against, that their free-speech rights are being suppressed because Republicans in western portions of the state now are being outvoted by Democrats who were added to the district in 2011.

They want a pristine, rural congressional district, much like they enjoyed after the 2000 Census, which might stretch all the way through rural stretches of Baltimore and Harford counties on the east and Montgomery County on the south.

But to do so would wreak havoc in the other seven districts. What’s fair about that?

At it stands, there’s no guarantee a Democrat will win the open 6th District seat in November.

6th District History

After all, registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters outnumber registered Democrats (253,000 to 212,000). Indeed, incumbent Democratic Rep. John Delaney won by a mere 2,200 votes in 2014 over Republican radio talk show host Dan Bongino.

Historically, the 6th District has favored conservative or moderately conservative candidates of both parties. Over the past 48 years, the district has sent a Democrat to Congress 14 times (Goodloe and Beverly Byron, plus Delaney) and a Republican 10 times (Roscoe Bartlett).

The 6th has had multiple geographic permutations, tying Western Maryland to all of Montgomery County for several decades or sweeping directly east all the way to the Susquehanna River.

In the process of marching to the east, the 6th sometimes has chopped Howard County in half (leaving Democratic Columbia outside the 6th’s borders) and segmenting Baltimore and Harford counties according to political leanings.

Compared with other current congressional districts in Maryland, the 6th is one of the most compact and coherent. It respects the district’s natural borders and county lines. It does not tear apart towns and communities as is the case with many of the other districts.

The 6th does, though, tie rural Western Maryland with suburbanized portions of Montgomery County.

However, there’s common interest in that pairing: Large and growing numbers of Frederick and Washington county residents commute to jobs along the I-270 technology corridor in Montgomery. There’s an overlap of interests, not a disparity.

Gerrymandering is at the root of complaints about redistricting. Since the early 1800s when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry first concocted a partisan legislative map resembling a salamander, political parties have availed themselves of this manipulative tool.

Political Redistricting -- Inherently Unfair

Famous 1812 cartoon of Massachusetts Gov. Gerry’s ‘salamander’ district.

Nationwide, Republicans are the prime gerrymandering culprits. In heavily Democratic Maryland, the shoe has been on the other foot.

Obscene versions of gerrymandering can be seen in the districts drawn for Democratic Congressmen John Sarbanes, Elijah Cummings and Dutch Ruppersberger to ensure their reelections.

Sarbanes’ repugnant district is the one that should be under attack, not the 6th.

The notion of keeping counties intact is well-meaning but naïve. The Supreme Court requires districts of equal population size. Now, try drawing those eight districts without chopping Baltimore City and Baltimore County into four districts and Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties into three districts.

A safe, rural Republican 6th District can be constructed, but it could require so many drastic alterations in other districts that the lone Maryland Republican in Congress today, Andy Harris, could find himself in a more hostile 1st District in which his re-election would not be a sure thing.

Whatever the Supreme Court rules on the Maryland case and another from Wisconsin, it will not eliminate unfairness, distortions or inequities from the re-districting process. Someone is going to wind up with the short end of the re-drawn maps.

The best we can hope for is a high court ruling that reinstates an earlier mandate from the justices following the “One Man, One Vote” ruling of 1963. It required that each district be compact, consist of adjoining territories and give due regard to natural boundaries as well as political boundaries..

The General Assembly and voters incorporated those requirements for redrawing state legislative lines into the state constitution in 1972.

Why not return to the Supreme Court’s earlier congressional redistricting standards? That’s a logical way to impose a degree of sanity and ground rules on an age-old political tug of war that is sure to persist.

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3 thoughts on “Political Redistricting — Inherently Unfair

  1. Fred M

    If the television coverage can breakdown the voting to the population levels and voters to precincts and wards and even votes, why can’t the 1 person 1 vote rule be left to computerization without politicians being involved? The voting public, and the non-voting public both are to be represented evenly. Boundaries would have less irregularity. The Hopkins team would and could do a better job of it all.

    Reply
  2. Mark Adams, Upper Fells Point

    My district, the 3rd, is an embarrassment. I like John Sarbanes, although I have only seen him in my part of the district once. He seems like an earnest man. In the past I have written in Elbridge Gerry as a way of sending a message. It is absolutely disgraceful to have a district that looks like the 3rd.

    Reply

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