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Editorial: Lead, not follow, on Md. redistricting

It was fitting that, one day after a meeting of the independent commission tasked by Gov. Larry Hogan with finding a new way to draw Maryland’s congressional districts, we were reminded of why the panel was created in the first place.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday heard a Republican-backed challenge to Maryland’s pro-Democratic congressional districts. The case will be decided on a procedural matter – whether a federal judge could unilaterally throw out the lawsuit or was required to send it to a three-judge panel – but the facts remain the same.

Because the governor and General Assembly craft congressional districts every decade, based on the U.S. Census, Maryland has some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. The 3rd Congressional District has been described as “the pinwheel of death” and “a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state,” among other colorful descriptions.

But, as the state Attorney General’s Office noted in filings to the Supreme Court, Maryland’s congressional districts simply “reflect the distribution of state party power.” Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state by a more than 2-to-1 margin. The current districts were created by a General Assembly dominated by Democrats and signed into law by a Democratic governor. That Democratic voters dominate seven of the eight congressional districts, then, could be characterized as the spoils belonging to the victor.

To be sure, gerrymandered districts are not just Maryland’s problem. An April report from the Pew Foundation found 48 percent of voters are either Democrats or lean Democratic, compared to 39 percent who are Republicans or lean Republican. Yet Republicans hold 59 more seats in U.S. House of Representatives than Democrats, and the number of seats considered “safe” for incumbents in both parties is, by one independent analysis, at close to 93 percent.

At a time when many complain about partisan gridlock, the chances for change are slim even before voters cast their ballot — if they cast their ballot at all. The diligence and ingenuity with which Republicans and Democrats draw legislative districts solely to protect their own parties is just one more reason why American voters are so disillusioned with the political process, often staying at home from the polls out of a forlorn sense that the whole enterprise is, if not rigged, at least tilted in favor of one party or the other.

All of this is why we supported Hogan’s call for reform in Maryland’s redistricting process. Among the nonbinding recommendations made by the governor’s panel were the creation of a nine-member independent commission to draw both state and congressional districts, as well as requiring congressional districts to have the same “compact and contiguous standards” as their state counterparts.

Many Democrats, not surprisingly, are against Hogan’s plan. Del. Alonzo Washington, D-Prince George’s, was the only commission member to vote against the recommendations, praising the effort but claiming a more “pragmatic approach” is needed to get legislation passed in Annapolis. If the delegate can think of something more pragmatic than an independent commission whose members would be selected randomly by a lottery, we welcome his proposal.

More disappointing is the insistence by Maryland Democratic leaders that a larger federal effort toward redistricting reform is needed. Demographic shifts suggest the pool of Democratic voters will only grow in years to come, meaning Democrats’ hold on power in Annapolis should continue. That should give them enough cushion to push what should be a bipartisan solution to a glaring problem. When an entire state is a “safe” district, it is an issue for its citizens and democracy in general.

Maryland should not lead from behind on redistricting.