Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Redistricting Reform NOW

If you want to see an example of a corrupt redistricting process in action, look no further than Virginia and Maryland.

In Maryland, the redistricting cycle that followed the 2010 census was an unabashed display of muscle politics by the state’s ruling Democratic establishment.

They began the process with two bare-knuckle objectives. First, bump off GOP Congressman Roscoe Bartlett and replace him with a successor hand-picked by state Democratic leaders. Second, protect the state’s Democratic incumbents.

In the end, they will probably meet both these goals. In the process, they divided counties and communities, and sacrificed the principles of geographic integrity and compactness.

Indeed, one of the federal appellate judges who reviewed Maryland’s congressional redistricting map said of the new, sprawling Third Congressional District: “In form, the original Massachusetts Gerrymander looks tame by comparison, as this is more reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

Speaking of gerrymandering, the legislative redistricting plan enacted by state Democrats after the 2000 census was such an egregious example that it was tossed out and rewritten by Maryland’s highest court.

In Virginia, where two-party competition is more robust than in Maryland, the situation is a little different. Incumbent self-protection is a bipartisan concern.

Political handicapper Stuart Rothenberg noted that Virginia’s new congressional districts, “don’t dramatically alter the partisanship of many districts, but the lines do solidify incumbents from both parties.”

Regarding state legislative races, as the Washington Post recently editorialized, Virginia’s incumbent protection philosophy has resulted in 85 to 95 percent of legislative races being lopsided victories, if they are contested at all.

Legislation to create a bipartisan redistricting commission is stalled in the Virginia legislature. But based on Maryland’s own experience, such a panel is unlikely to be a catalyst for change.

Maryland has its own redistricting “advisory commission,” but it is dominated by gubernatorial appointees and the presiding officers of the legislature. Even if the bill passes, the Virginia legislature would still retail final authority.

Reform-minded Marylanders and Virginians should look to other states for solutions.

In Iowa, for example, electoral maps are drawn by the state’s Legislative Service Agency, using computer software which factors in population as its sole criteria. Other factors which typically dominate a legislature-driven process – including partisanship and incumbency – are disregarded. A bipartisan Temporary Redistricting Commission is empanelled to assist the process, but it only offers advice when asked to do so.

Since passing its program in 1980, Iowa has avoided the kind of high-profile redistricting drama witnessed in states like Texas and Colorado. Even as Iowa lost a congressional seat due to the 2010 census, the state’s new legislative and congressional maps overwhelmingly passed the state legislature and were quickly signed into law by Iowa’s governor.

California has also moved to a nonpartisan redistricting system. The state’s Citizens Redistricting Commission includes five Republicans, five Democrats, and four unaffiliated citizens. Though the state is a newcomer to nonpartisan redistricting, the impact of the new process is already being felt.

During the past 10 years, only one California congressional seat changed partisan hands during 255 elections. Since the new map was unveiled, six veteran California members of Congress have announced their retirements, and others are expected to follow.

If you like competitive elections, then you should love nonpartisan redistricting.

According to a report issued by the New York-based “No Labels” committee, nonpartisan redistricting translates into a 21 percent drop in the number of uncontested elections.

Of course, the biggest obstacle to bringing nonpartisan redistricting to Maryland, Virginia, or any state with a gubernatorial- or legislature-driven process is its own political leaders.

California’s redistricting change came about through a ballot initiative passed into law by the voters.  This is not an option in Maryland or Virginia.

Further, people are generally apathetic about arcane, theoretical matters involving the mechanics of the political process, especially those which arise only once every decade.

For nonpartisan redistricting to become a reality in Virginia and Maryland, it is going to take strong leadership from a reform-minded governor willing to elevate a good governance issue among other priorities, and to expend political capital forcing recalcitrant legislators to travel in a direction they simply don’t want to go.  

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