The Frederick News-Post has consistently supported efforts to reform the state’s flawed, partisan redistricting system, including Gov. Larry Hogan’s establishing of a Redistricting Reform Commission.
We still have hopes that the commission will be able to forge a new, fair and politically acceptable method of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts after each decennial Census. A recent story in The Daily Record, however, reveals that the way forward for the committee is not clear and that its members are far from unanimous about how to proceed.
The commission was charged with holding public meetings around the state, which it has done, and then to report its official recommendations by Nov. 3. That’s next week, and some commission members say that deadline can’t be met in a responsible way, and that it needs to be extended. Considering what’s at stake here, we agree. The date on which this commission must submit its recommendations must take a back seat to the recommendations themselves.
Commission member Christopher Summers, who is also president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, is calling for a bold, unique approach that could make the state a model of redistricting reform that other gerrymandering states could use in remaking their politically tainted systems.
What that approach might be, we don’t know. We do know that creating an independent redistricting commission is already being done by a number of other states, and is under consideration within the reform commission. But whatever new system the commission proposes would require a constitutional amendment that both a supermajority of the General Assembly and voters would have to approve. Unfortunately, some members of the redistricting reform group say that establishing an impartial redistricting commission won’t fly in the Maryland General Assembly.
“You’re going to have a difficult time getting a constitutional amendment through the Legislature if it has an independent commission in it,” says Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore, who is chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “I don’t know a lot, but I know how to count. I can count,” she says, implying that such a proposal wouldn’t have the votes to even make it out of committee.
In theory, an independent redistricting commission would be free of political aims and would serve voters by ensuring fairer elections. It’s very clear, however, that this worthwhile initiative is being stymied by politics as usual. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller declared the reform effort dead in the water before the commission had even started its work. Members of Frederick County’s local delegation have also spoken against it. In all these cases, the argument has been that other states gerrymander their congressional districts, so Maryland needs to continue to do so as well.
We believe that Maryland should instead take the high road when it comes to this linchpin of democracy. Providing such an example could encourage, or shame, others to do the same.
If Conway is right about the dead-on-arrival status of an impartial redistricting commission, perhaps the reform group can come up with another approach. There is more than one way to ensure that congressional districts are fairly and impartially created. What, for example, is Summers alluding to when he speaks of “a system that’s very bold and unique”?
It seems clear that Hogan’s reform commission will not be ready to present its findings on Nov. 3. Its members should scrap that deadline and continue working on this important assignment until they can submit solid recommendations as a unified body.
There is no guarantee that the politically divided General Assembly is going to accept any recommendations that this commission creates, but if the Legislature rejects a thoughtful, fair and truly democratic replacement for the egregious gerrymandering that currently defines redistricting, it will be on them to explain why to voters.