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Pure Onsense

Maryland Redistricting

Scott Zuke

(Nov, 2011) What do Thurmont and Emmitsburg have in common with Rockville and Bethesda? Not much. But pretty soon, they'll be sharing a congressional representative. And it won't be Roscoe Bartlett.

On Oct. 20, with little fanfare, Governor Martin O'Malley signed off on a new redistricting plan for Maryland that reflects regional population shifts as reported in the 2010 Census. It also reflects a transparent effort by O'Malley and the Democratic party to tilt Maryland's congressional representation even further in their party's favor than it already is.

Maryland remains a solid blue state, with twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. With eight congressional districts we would expect to see a either a 5-3 or 6-2 split between Democratic and Republican districts. The latter has been the case for the past ten years, but the new plan is clearly intended to produce an unjustifiable 7-1 Democratic majority. The Republican representative being targeted for removal is our very own Roscoe Bartlett, of the (former) 6th District.

Gerrymandering isn't new to Maryland. Baltimore's overwhelmingly Democratic population is already being divided over three districts to dilute the more conservative surrounding areas. But the rest of the state didn't used to look too bad. The 6th District sensibly included Western Maryland, Frederick County, the rural areas around Westminster, and the northern portions of Baltimore and Harford County. Considering Maryland's uniquely shaped borders, the old district lines did a fair job of keeping counties and communities intact. The same cannot be said for the new 2011 lines.

The rural parts of Frederick County have been reassigned to the bizarrely-shaped new 8th District, which will include a chunk of Carroll County and a suspicious sliver of Montgomery County that extends to include D.C.'s northern suburbs (inherited from the old 8th District, currently represented by Democrat Chris Van Hollen). Meanwhile, the city of Frederick remains in the 6th District, but will be joined by a sizeable portion of Montgomery County which, like Baltimore, is being sliced up into three different districts to distribute its Democratic votes among more right-leaning regions.

If you think the new 8th District is a mess, it pales in comparison to the 3rd District, which has got to be one of the ugliest cases of gerrymandering in the nation. Looking like a Sanskrit character, it snakes in and out of four counties and Baltimore City. Eric Hartley, a staff writer for The Capital in Annapolis, attempted to drive straight through the district, a project that took him nine hours and 168 miles of driving to complete (including multiple departures from the district where its boundaries are not connected by roads, or in some places, even by land). The 3rd includes some of the poorest areas of Baltimore and a portion of Howard County, the fifth wealthiest county in the nation. How can such a district be fairly and accurately represented when its constituents are worlds apart, both geographically and socio-economically?

To be fair, redistricting is among the most difficult tasks facing lawmakers. Beyond the logistical and political obstacles, there's still no simple formula, nor any clear philosophical guidance for how a district should be designed. Should homogenous communities be kept intact to ensure direct representation of their interests, or should the district be designed to approximate the state or national demographic balances? Is democracy better served by grouping the like-minded together, or by exposing people to diverse viewpoints?

The absence of an "ideal," however, does not justify blatant bad behavior. As common as gerrymandering may be in other states, and by both parties, whatever marginal political gains there are to be made through the practice should be weighed against the social costs.

Not only are the quality and accuracy of representation corrupted by tampering with districts in this fashion, but it also breeds cynicism. How could any citizen look at this Congressional district map and not conclude that whoever created it was thinking only of political objectives and not at all of what was in the best interest of the people? In the state legislature's drafting meetings, how could such a map come into being without people openly discussing with one another, "How can we shift this line to really stick it to the Republicans?"

What's damaging about cynicism is that it leads to apathy. When I posted "Rorschach" versions (silhouette images, although this is a misnomer, since there's nothing symmetrical about the shapes!) of the new 8th and 3rd Districts on Facebook, some people thought it was a joke, and others had already heard about the new district lines. Nobody was surprised or upset about it. This is business as usual, afterall.

It's possible things will change in a few months when the primary elections are held and many people will hear about the redistricting for the first time. The General Election next year will be interesting to watch as well. Rep. Bartlett may actually have to run a serious campaign now that he has lost some reliable supporters in northern Frederick County. And what will Thurmont and Emmitsburg residents think of the current 8th District representative, Chris Van Hollen, the up-and-comer Democrat from Montgomery County?

Read other article by Scott Zuke