Published in The Daily Record's legislative magazine on January 13, 2016.
The pterodactyl, also known as the 3rd Congressional District, has become something of an unofficial state bird since then-Gov. Martin O’Malley and the General Assembly hatched it in 2012. Viewed on the map, the pterodactyl’s wings appear more than broken; they’re positively mangled. The district meanders across several counties and Baltimore City, from south of Annapolis to the Triadelphia Reservoir in Montgomery County to Owings Mills northwest of Baltimore.
The pterodactyl is an extreme example of a national phenomenon: partisan gerrymandering. Maryland Democrats conceived it as a way to secure control of seven of the state’s eight congressional districts. In states where they hold a majority in the state legislature, Republicans have pulled the same trick, drawing oddly-shaped districts to isolate the Democrats and guarantee the election of Republican lawmakers
And redistricting is more than just a partisan concern. When legislative and congressional districts cut through our counties, neighborhoods, and communities, the voice of those communities is fractured too. And the accountability between our elected officials and their constituents is equally fragmented. Voters feel the elections are rigged – that elected officials are choosing their voters, not the other way around.
But back to the pterodactyl. The district is so outrageous, Democrats as well as Republicans have joined in efforts to reshape it and much of the rest of the state’s political map to more fairly reflect the state’s electorate. The Supreme Court decided just last week that a lawsuit – brought by Common Cause member, Steve Shapiro – that challenges the constitutionality of the district should get a full hearing before a special three-judge court.
While Shapiro is battling the pterodactyl in court, Gov. Hogan and a study commission he created last summer are turning into legislation a plan to ensure that Maryland’s next redistricting – in 2022 – doesn’t produce another deformed monster.
The commission’s recommendations included:
- District lines should be compact, contiguous, and respect county and municipal lines.
- Both congressional and state legislative districts should be drawn by an independent commission.
- The independent commission should be politically diverse, including three from the majority party, three from the minority party, and three members from neither political party. The applicants will go through a
- The commission will draw lines without regard to party affiliation or incumbent residency. The commission will hold “ample” public hearings on the proposed plan.
- The legislature may reject the map through a supermajority vote.
- State legislative districts shall be far more consistent in size. Districts must be within 1% variance in population (as opposed to the current 5%) and there should be consistency between single-member or three-member delegate districts.
Other states have already taken action to fix their process. Arizona and California have established independent commissions. Florida has required compactness standards and prohibited drawing districts for partisan advantage. Iowa draws maps without regard to voter party affiliation or where incumbents live. These solutions are working – creating more fair, compact, and representative districts in blue and red states alike.
Common Cause Maryland and the League of Women Voters of Maryland have advocated for reform to our broken system for many decades. The current maps are drawn by political insiders behind closed doors, with no opportunity for meaningful public input and no standards to ensure our Congressional districts respect community lines. This broken process can only hope to produce a broken map.
The public’s frustration was palpable at every hearing the Commission held this fall. We deserve better than tortured Congressional districts and legislative districts that cut across county lines. We deserve a process that is in the hands of independent thinkers, not the politicians. And we deserve a map that leaves communities intact and fairly represented.
The other dinosaurs that once roamed Maryland have been extinct for tens of thousands of years. It is time for the pterodactyl to join them.