In addition to coming up with new lines defining the state’s legislative districts, a commission created by Gov. Larry Hogan is also charged with another monumental task: Changing the way members of the House of Delegates are elected.
The governor has directed the commission to draw a legislative map using single-member delegate districts instead of the current system in which districts elect from one to three delegates.
All but nine other states elect one representative per district in the state’s lower chamber. In Maryland, however, each of the state’s 47 Senate districts elects one senator and three delegates.
In some districts, all three represent the entire territory, while in others, the district is divided into three smaller areas. In still other places, one delegate district has been carved out, while the remaining population elects two.
That is the case here in Frederick County’s District 3, which includes Frederick city and the southern portion of the county. District 3A has two delegates, and District 3B has one.
As the governor’s commission has been working, it has become apparent that Hogan and the Republicans on the panel see the change as a way to win more seats for the GOP. They have not articulated that argument, but the discussion on the commission seems to be stacking up that way.
The state news website Maryland Matters reported that Democrats on the commission want to keep the current mixed system, while the Republicans say the governor’s executive order has stipulated single-member districts, to the extent possible.
The commission has three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents. The ultimate decision on redistricting will be made by the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Supporters of the mixed system say that, contrary to past history, it has led to greater diversity of representation. Multi-member districts were long used to dilute the influence of Black voters, but now, say supporters, the opposite is true.
Jackie Coolidge, of the League of Women Voters of Maryland, told Capital News Service the current system has helped make the Maryland General Assembly “one of the most racially and ethnically diverse in the country.” Coolidge said the system also leads to greater gender diversity.
Drawing single member districts in the past depended on a history of housing segregation. It would not work to benefit all minority groups in all places, according to Del. David Moon, D-Montgomery.
“If it were Asians, for example, I don’t know how many districts there are in Maryland where you’d have a concentration large enough that you could guarantee electoral outcomes for a single-member district,” Moon said.
What the current system has not done, of course, is to elect more Republicans.
Del. Haven Shoemaker, a Republican from Carroll County, told Capital News Service he believes the mix of single- and multi-member districts purposely under represents people of color and Republicans. He is not alone in his suspicion.
In 2015, the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission urged a single-member system. Its report said:
“Little if any testimony supported the current practice in which different methods are arbitrarily imposed on different areas around the state, with the inconsistency of practice creating a strong suspicion that the discretion is being abused for tactical political ends.”
Since Democrats control the General Assembly, the expectation is that they will continue the current system. But one alternative would be to use ranked-choice voting in multi-member districts.
A group called FairVote, which advocates for electoral reforms, favors ranked voting in multi-member districts. It says:
“The freedom to rank candidates in order of choice … maximizes the effectiveness of every vote to ensure that as many voters as possible will help elect a candidate they rank highly. It minimizes wasted votes and the impact of tactical voting, allows voters to have more choices, and encourages positive campaigning and coalition-building.”
Here is how it works: Voters mark their favorite candidate as first choice and then indicate their second and additional back-up choices in order.
Votes are counted in a series of rounds. In each round, either a winning candidate is identified and elected, in which case the votes they received in excess of what they needed to win transfer to their next choices; or the candidate in last place is eliminated, in which case votes for that candidate transfer to their next choices. Additional rounds take place until each seat is filled.
The Redistricting Commission would be well to consider ranked-choice voting in multi-member districts as a possible compromise way to achieve more racial, gender and party diversity in the legislature.