Everybody knows about the Battle of Maldon.
In August 991, an invading horde of Vikings were met beside the River Blackwater in Essex by a Saxon army led by old Earl Byrhtnoth. The Vikings had landed on a small island that was joined to the mainland by a narrow land bridge, giving Byrhtnoth a big advantage; if the Vikings were to try to cross on the bridge, the Saxons could cut them down one by one as each man came ashore. So Olaf, the Viking commander, asked Byrhtnoth to back his men up so the Vikings could cross over. Byrhtnoth did and before the day was over his army was decimated and old Byrhtnoth’s head was separated from his body.
Lesson: don’t give up your advantage without a fight.
State House Democrats opted for a little self-preservation of their own instead of fair representation this week when they rejected a House of Delegates bill backed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that would have set up a nonpartisan commission to redraw congressional and legislative districts in Maryland. That idea, which is based on the recommendations of the bipartisan Redistricting Reform Commission, also has the backing of former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley, himself the architect of a 2011 redistricting scheme that gifted Democrats with a solid seven-member Congressional delegation majority as well as full control of the state legislature. But Democratic lawmakers won’t embrace the proposal, fearing it would cut into their numbers.
Instead, Democrats support a bill that would set up a regional mid-Atlantic redistricting agreement with five other states, a move that’s widely understood to help Maryland maintain its significant Democratic majorities — both in Congress and in the General Assembly. But that bill is contingent on similar bills passing in New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and becomes void if no agreement is reached by 2020. The chances of this happening are little to none.
It’s hard to blame Democrats for pining for such a wacky idea though. Republicans have built solid majorities in Congress and in state legislatures across the country with the help of gerrymandering schemes that courts are only now beginning to examine. Couple those schemes with Republican-sponsored voter ID bills that are intended to suppress Democratic votes and right-to-work laws that hurt unions, privatization programs that hurt public employee unions, and tort-reform bills designed to dry up money from Democratic trial lawyers — and let’s not forget the disastrous 2010 Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that opened the floodgates to unlimited and unidentified election spending — it’s no wonder Democrats are left tugging at their collars like old headless Byrhtnoth.
The trouble for Maryland Democrats is that the redistricting scheme they embraced in 2011 that unseated 10-term 6th District Congressman Roscoe Bartlett is already being challenged in court, and rightfully so. As district boundaries go, old Gov. Elbridge Gerry couldn’t have done much better.
But, gerrymandering legislative districts does more to protect incumbents and majorities than it does to provide fair representation for constituents. The bipartisan solution backed by Hogan would help to depoliticize the process and craft district maps that better reflect the will of the electorate, not the machinations of party bosses. While we also support a bill before the House of Representatives that would establish bipartisan redistricting commissions in each state, we realize that as long as Republicans in states like Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina and Ohio continue to behave like Vikings, national redistricting reform will never happen. But backing up and allowing reform to happen here wouldn’t make Maryland Democrats Byrhtnoth — it would help give Marylanders the “one person, one vote” representation they deserve. And that’s a win for both sides.