Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Monopoly Strikes Back

A few weeks back I met up with a fellow Maryland political analyst  for breakfast. During my freewheeling conversation with my thoughtful left-leaning companion, I made the point that my own partisan allegiance is less important to me than it once was, and that my desire to see the minority party function as a counterweight to the state’s majority Democrats has increased commensurately.

Regardless of where you stand ideologically, you should want state Republicans to be in a position to force the establishment to defend and account for its decisions. My breakfast companion agreed with the good governance benefits of two-party competition.

When that does not happen, and the minority party falters, some of the more ominous consequences of unchecked one-party rule may emerge.

For example, a majority party run amok may grow so brazen as to manipulate the political process in order to sharpen its already formidable advantage.

That’s exactly what the Maryland Democratic Party is attempting to do with respect to the state’s impending congressional redistricting referendum.

Earlier this year, Democrats drew a new redistricting map intended to achieve a single, transparent partisan objective: Bump off Congressman Roscoe Bartlett in order to reduce the GOP’s presence in the state’s congressional delegation to a single member.

The map was drawn by a sham “redistricting commission” – one of whose members is now doing time for federal income tax fraud – and quickly passed by an overwhelming Democratic legislature.

The map was faulted not just by Republicans, but by members of the state’s black community who felt that majority minority areas were being divvied up to serve state Democratic leaders’ grand design.

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.”

Using the state’s referendum process, opponents of the map quickly organized and began collecting signatures in order to get the new congressional map onto the 2012 ballot, taking it out of the partisan swamplands of Annapolis and empowering voters to decide its fate for themselves. 

The referendum process has successfully been used to get two additional controversial measures – marriage equality and in-state tuition breaks for illegal immigrants – on the ballot as well. Still, many political observers – including this one – doubted that enough voters could be motivated to take a stand on such a dry, process-oriented issue like redistricting.

But opponents of the Democratic congressional map succeeded. The State Board of Elections validated 59,201 of the signatures submitted, putting it past the 55,736 signature threshold needed to get it on the ballot.

Simply put, opponents of the map used the only tool available to them to challenge it – and they won.

So, that victory has inspired the state’s political establishment to do what unaccountable monopolies often do: Change the rules on their opponents.

Five partisan Democratic activists filed a lawsuit in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court challenging the veracity of about 5,000 of the signatures collected through the MDPetitions.com online tool. Conveniently, disqualifying that number of signatures would be enough to push the referendum below the eligibility threshold, thereby knocking it off the ballot.

In a statement dripping with both revisionist arrogance and self-serving partisan rhetoric, the Maryland Democratic Party’s Executive Director states:

“The Maryland GOP’s partisan effort to overturn this plan is simply a desperate ploy by a declining party who has abandoned all hopes of winning elections and has turned instead to constantly churning out questionable petition signatures.
“Maryland voters will undoubtedly see this effort as a transparent attempt by Republicans to subvert legislative procedure and impose a radical tea party agenda. We are confident of victory, up and down the ballot, in November.”

You’ve got to love the obligatory reference to the tea party – the partisan bogeyman du jour – thrown in here for good measure, but I digress.

The real “transparent attempt” here is the attempt by the state’s Democratic establishment, which did not get the desired result from its own State Board of Elections, to simply change the venue in search of a more favorable outcome.

MDDems are trying to substitute the Maryland State Board of Elections' own rigorous signature review process – something they have never questioned before – with a chaotic, subjective process similar to that depicted in the HBO film Recount. But instead of fighting over ballots with dimpled chads, partisan lawyers will be squabbling over signatures.

And, once the desired number has been excised, they will seek to bring the process to an abrupt end. In essence, the bigwigs at the State Democratic Party, who were among those of us who did not think the redistricting map would survive the referendum process, were caught flat-footed, and now they are scrambling to win by any means necessary.

But this isn’t the first time the establishment has tried to shut down the state’s referendum process in response to the minority’s success in using it.

As Blair Lee reported in his Gazette column last March, Montgomery County Delegate Eric Leudtke introduced legislation which would have effectively neutered the process by disallowing the use of Internet petitions. Given MontCo’s reputation for tech friendliness, transparency, and good governance, I find that a bit ironic.

Mercifully, that bill went nowhere. But now it seems the more hyper-partisan elements of the establishment want to manipulate the judiciary to achieve similar ends. Simply put, once again members of the state’s ruling political establishment are trying to stick it to the minority, while cloaking their bare-knuckle intentions in high-minded, paternalistic rhetoric. To me, the most offensive thing about it is their collective ability to keep a straight face.

Now, let me be clear here. I see this as less of a partisan phenomenon, and more what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the “Tyranny of the Majority” in action. I think that, were you to observe states run by perennial Republican establishments – such as Texas, Utah, and Idaho – you would witness similar oppressive tactics at work there.

But this eleventh hour, desperation lawsuit is yet another example of muscle politics by a majority that regards its claim to power as a permanent entitlement.

Will the state’s political establishment get away with shutting down the redistricting referendum? The majority has a tendency to get what it wants in Maryland, so another win is certainly possible. 

But, in  curtailing the freedoms of Maryland citizens, their win will translate into a  permanent loss for everyone else. 

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