Our state’s democracy deserves better than the congressional redistricting process that’s played out this year.
In December, the Democratic majority of the Maryland state legislature passed a new, gerrymandered congressional map. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the map, citing its divergence from one produced by a commission he created. The Maryland state legislature overrode Hogan’s veto. Republican lawmakers filed a lawsuit. A state court judge declared the state legislature’s map unconstitutional using an unprecedented legal argument. Legislators scrambled to put together an alternative map. At the beginning of April, this last-minute map was signed into law by Hogan, and Maryland finally had its new congressional district lines.
This is not how our democracy should work.
Gerrymandering is dangerous, regardless of which party holds the reins. It is bad when Democrats in Maryland gerrymander their districts to maximize their party’s odds of electoral success. It is bad when Republican leaders create redistricting commissions that appear so biased that they’re completely ignored by serious legislators. And it is very bad when state courts overstep their role and expand their own power.
We can and must do better than the convoluted and democratically unhealthy process that gave us our new congressional map this month.
To be clear, there is plenty of blame to go around for the messiness of Maryland’s redistricting.
On the Democratic side, legislators got too comfortable choosing their voters. In the initial map, lines were blatantly drawn to make each district as Democratic as possible — even when that meant districts snaked across the state in laughably unwieldy shapes. As state Rep. Gabriel Acevero put it, after he cast the only Democratic vote against the original map, “the process we have today is simply representatives picking representatives.”
On the Republican side, Hogan repeatedly claimed he wanted to address gerrymandering in good faith. But when it came time to truly build an independent, nonpartisan body to draw new district lines, Hogan instead unilaterally convened his own redistricting commission and hand-picked its leaders. Because he acted alone to form and shape it, the commission was easy to characterize as a partisan ploy by the governor. Democrats had all the reason they needed not to take the commission’s independence or its initial recommendations seriously.
The Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge that threw out the legislature’s map also behaved in an alarmingly anti-democratic way. To arrive at her decision in the case, Senior Judge Lynne A. Battaglia conjured up a new legal precedent— reading a provision of the state constitution to apply to congressional districts for the first time ever. In its reporting of the redistricting saga, Maryland Matters described the move as state courts in Maryland “flexing their muscles.” When courts usurp the role of lawmaking from the legislature, democracy is in trouble. The Maryland judicial system should not be claiming for itself the authority to set gerrymandering laws in the state: that is for duly elected leaders to decide.
Ultimately, we need a truly nonpartisan way forward for drawing Maryland’s congressional districts. We echo Rep. Acevero and the League of Women Voters in calling for a new, independent government commission to guide the state’s redistricting. In the nonpartisan model of redistricting task forces in California and Michigan, Maryland’s commission shouldn’t be composed of individuals who are hand-picked by the governor or by the legislature. The commission should be made up of voters from across our state and serve to rebuild Marylanders’ trust in the redistricting process.
Democracy is so much more important than party politics. Across ideology, county and district, we should all come together to protect it here in Maryland.
Rising Voices is an occasional column by Nate Tinbite, a John F. Kennedy High School graduate; Ananya Tadikonda, a Richard Montgomery High School graduate; and Matt Post, a Sherwood High School graduate. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County Board of Education.
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