Gerrymandering: A Threat to Our Democracy
Dear Friends, Neighbors, and Constituents,
Recently the United States Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari to hear plaintiffs who claim that their First Amendment rights were violated by the O’Malley Administration’s partisan legislative redistricting efforts in 2012. This is the second attempt in as many years to challenge the Sixth Congressional District in the Supreme Court. This ‘gerrymandering’ was, by Governor O’Malley’s own admission, designed to oust Republican Congressman Roscoe Bartlett in favor of a Democratic Congressman (the seat is now held by Congressman John Delaney but was originally created for then State Senator Rob Garagiola). Reversing course in an interview on Public Interest Podcast, Martin O’Malley articulated his opposition to gerrymandering stating his belief that “a better way for our party and our country would be a bi-partisan redistricting commission.”
Gerrymandering fundamentally undermines trust in our democratic institutions, our elected officials, and in our core constitutional principles. By drawing legislative districts for partisan advantage, elected officials attempt to pre-determine the victor in a yet to be held election, thus giving primacy to their views over those of the general electorate. Using computer algorithms, Governor O’Malley, Senate President Mike Miller, and Speaker of the House Mike Busch determined how voters were likely to vote and drew districts that would maximize Democratic Party gains in Maryland’s congressional delegation. In so doing they are guilty of placing party above country and of replacing representative democracy with oligarchical rule.
A vibrant and healthy democracy requires that an informed public be actively engaged in the selection of its representatives. The free exercise of the right to vote is the most fundamental right granted to citizens in a representative democracy. Each Election Day, voters hold their elected officials accountable for their decisions and decide whether to return the incumbents to elected office or whether to replace them with new leadership. Gerrymandering undermines this process.
Accountability can be further advanced only in the context of reasonably apportioned districts. Gerrymandered districts disenfranchise Marylanders and contribute to increased partisan polarization by removing incentives for candidates to appeal to the wider public. Our gerrymandered congressional districts tend to predetermine the outcome of our General Elections, turning our Primary Elections, in many cases, into the de-facto General Election. Gerrymandering is a significant contributory factor towards the gradual replacement of more moderate members of the U.S. Congress with more ideologically extremist members, which in turn has led to increased legislative gridlock.
It should come as no surprise that voter turnout is so depressed. Only nine percent of America chose Trump and Clinton as the nominees of the Republican and Democratic Parties. When elected officials across the nation attempt to rig elections it is no wonder that voters are left feeling as though their voices cannot possibly be heard. An end to gerrymandering will convey to voters that their vote matters, that their vote will be counted, and that their government is truly one that is representative of the people.
Regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Maryland’s next governor must at a minimum take corrective action with the 2022-redistricting plan. The Maryland General Assembly should empower the independent, non-partisan Department of Legislative Services (or a newly created, independent Redistricting Commission) with the authority to redistrict legislative districts based upon population shifts as recorded in the U.S. Census. Such efforts would restore confidence in our electoral system, providing guidance to other bodies regarding the spirit of our governing decisions.
There have been concerns expressed that the legislation that I propose be introduced in Maryland should instead be introduced at the federal level, and the “Redistricting Reform Act of 2015” would address some of these issues. In a twist of irony, it is perhaps because of the widespread proliferation of gerrymandering that federal efforts to prohibit gerrymandering have to date been unsuccessful. The Maryland Democratic Party rightly fears that it will lose seats in its congressional delegation if legislative districts are drawn by a non-partisan entity while Republican delegations from other states would continue to benefit from gerrymandering. There are proposals that would address these concerns, including a plan for a regional collaborative partnership with the Virginia and Pennsylvania legislatures, though this plan would seem to have as much likelihood of passing as would any federal plan. Ultimately righting this wrong needs to begin in our own backyard.
Independent of ending the practice of gerrymandering there are institutional processes that Maryland can implement that will enhance democratic participation in our elections. Maryland should consider replacing our opt-in voter registration process with an opt-out ‘automatic voter registration’ process like those implemented in nine states and the District of Columbia. Maryland should align state and county election cycles with the federal election cycle or at the very least return primary elections to September, open primary elections to allow all registered voters to participate, and should replace special appointments, which account for one-third of all Montgomery County’s delegation to the legislature, with special elections. Implementing these measures will create a democracy that is more inclusive and transparent. It is imperative that voter confidence in our democratic institutions be restored and the elimination of gerrymandering is the surest manner of conveying to citizens that their vote matters. There comes a time when our elected officials must do what is right and must lead from the front. The time is now to redistrict in a non-partisan manner.
Democratic Candidate for Delegate
Maryland General Assembly
June 2018 Primary Elections