Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

C. Fraser Smith: Redistricting is a numbers game that matters

Perhaps you think redistricting is a boring enterprise devoid of real-world consequence for the rest of us.

You would be wrong.

Had there been no redistricting in 2001, Maryland would have had slot machine gambling a decade ago (more on this later).

Had there been no rebalancing of Maryland’s districts (redistricting) in 1990, Tom McMillen might be headed into his third decade as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. And the estimable Wayne Gilchrist might still be painting houses.

Had there been no Court of Appeals-settled redistricting controversy in 2001, power-challenged Baltimore might share representatives with Baltimore County. As part of a city-county voting bloc, the city would have more clout in the Assembly. The court erased these overlapping districts when it drew the lines in 1990.

So the process matters for all for all of us — not just the officeholders, ex-officeholders and those who might be thinking about running for office.

Searching for solid districts

Redistricting — which will occur over the next several months — has become so thoroughly politicized in recent years that it governs the ideological or partisan makeup of Congress. Those in power — governors and congressional representatives — tend to control and predetermine the outcomes.

This is why so many were eager to retain or regain control of the process in the 2010 election. Governors hold the ultimate power. They get the districts they want.

A student of the redistricting process — one of the many critics who say it has become profoundly undemocratic — offers this definition: Redistricting is when the office seekers pick the voters, not the other way around.

This sneer arises from the way the process of balancing congressional districts has evolved. One person-one vote (Baker v. Carr, 1964) is the best known of the judicial forces.

Change has come with other court decisions and technology that allow very precise balancing of precincts by voting.

In Maryland and presumably in every other state, the congressmen and congresswomen are into the process up to their spreadsheets.

What drives them are Democratic or Republican “performance”: how a particular precinct tends to vote over time. The patterns are discernible. Wards or precincts or counties that reliably vote Democratic or Republican are contested zealously.

A delicate balance

The game becomes more intense in years like this one when the party in power would like to see a change that might allow Democrats to regain a seat they lost in the 2010 election. For example, if enough Democratic high-performing districts could be shifted into the conservative 1st District, Frank Kratovil — who was knocked off after one term last November by Republican Andy Harris — might run again.

Here’s where the maneuvering gets sticky. To make this happen, districts like the 2nd and 3rd might have to give some of their Democratic strength to the more Republican-leaning 1st. The incumbents there, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger in the 2nd and John Sarbanes in the 3rd, might object. As much as they might like to help Kratovil, they won’t want to weaken themselves.

Political leaders always want to be re-elected as easily as possible. They want as many reliable Democratic or Republican votes as possible. This means they will scratch and claw their way into precincts where the performance leans precipitously toward them.

And if you think again that this matters only to these worthies, consider this. In 2002, House Speaker Casper Taylor. a slot machine advocate, lost his seat after redistricting. His replacement as speaker, Michael E. Busch, was a slots opponent.

At the time, there were those who apparently thought Taylor’s post would be taken by LeRoy E. Myers, who defeated him. Not so. These titles don’t go with the man or woman; the House elects the speaker. In this case it elected Busch, who thought slot machines were an abomination, and the cause for slots was set back for years.

Taylor lost his re-election bid in part because the new district plan put him in a slightly less familiar district. Other factors were, no doubt, in play. But he probably would have won in his old district.

Likewise, Baltimore would have more power in the law-making process if it shared representation with senators and delegates from Baltimore County.

Who knows how the cards will fall this time around. Rest assured, though, it will matter to some individuals and possibly to the whole state.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR, 88.1. His column appears Fridays and occasionally on other days in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.