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Independent redistricting commission needed at state level to fight gerrymandering

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The Supreme Court’s refusal to get the federal judiciary involved in the gerrymandering of Maryland’s 6th District has added new urgency to Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s repeated calls for a non-partisan redistricting commission to draw new lines following the 2020 census.

Having twice sought Maryland’s 6th District seat, I can appreciate the frustration voiced by Justice Elena Kagan in her dissent that “… politicians who benefit from partisan gerrymandering are unlikely to change partisan gerrymandering. And because those politicians maintain themselves in office through partisan gerrymandering, the chances for legislative reform are slight.” It does indeed seem to be a Catch 22. 

The calls by some, including Maryland Senate President Mike Miller, for Congress to take the lead in ending gerrymandering is disingenuous at best. Not only is the present Congress exactly those politicians who wish to maintain the status-quo or strengthen their party’s position, but this Congress has been demonstrably unable – or unwilling – to work together on divisive issues. This issue will have to be resolved at the state level.

However, this does not mean the present unfair boundaries must stand. Maryland’s own political leadership cannot abdicate their responsibility to provide a level playing field for our elections. We citizens must get involved and demand reform. Eight states, including battleground Ohio, already have non-partisan redistricting commissions. Eight more have bipartisan commissions. This is proof that redistricting can be approached by action at the state level. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Consider this: if you were to visit Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, you’d be standing in the eastern end of the 6th District. The western end is in Garrett County, 85 miles from the Ohio border. Having visited every corner of the District during my congressional campaigns, I can attest that Garrett County, where the average family income is $44,041, is a world away from suburban Bethesda in Montgomery County where the $194,358 average family income is among the highest in the nation. Two very different worlds with very different priorities. And they have markedly different views on many critical issues including guns, abortion, immigration, etc. The key frustration of the Garrett County (and the rest of the Western Maryland) voters is that this range of views is not represented – only one side of the spectrum has been put forth by their member of Congress for almost a decade.

Prior to the 2011 redistricting, 47 percent of voters in the 6th District were registered Republicans who routinely re-elected Republican Roscoe Bartlett to office by double digit margins. After redistricting, the Republican share of the electorate dropped to 33 percent, and in the following election Bartlett lost to now Democratic presidential candidate John Delaney by 21 points. No surprise!

The New York Times would later observe that, statewide, while Republicans won 35 percent of Maryland’s votes for Congress they won just one (13 percent) of the congressional seats. And the analytics firm Azavea, which mapped all 435 U.S. congressional districts, found that Maryland’s 6th was one of the most gerrymandered in the nation.

The Supreme Court didn’t disagree with any of that Thursday. It simply said the Federal courts are not where you should look for a remedy. Gov. Hogan called the ruling “terribly disappointing to all who believe in fair elections.” And he pledged to vigorously continue his reform effort both in Maryland and across the nation. “Gerrymandering is wrong,” he said, “and both parties are guilty.”

A recent Goucher College poll found 73 percent of Maryland residents agree and want boundaries drawn by an independent commission; not by judges and not by politicians.

While I agree with the court’s minority that action is needed, I also agree with the majority that the place where that action must be sought is not with our appointed Federal judiciary. We, the Maryland citizens, need to ensure that Gov. Hogan’s repeated calls for an independent redistricting commission to draw new lines after the 2020 census is passed – either by our legislature or by a statewide ballot initiative. 

Amoretta M. Hoeber was the Republican nominee for Maryland’s 6th District in 2016 and 2018.

Tags Elena Kagan Gerrymandering John Delaney Rucho v. Common Cause

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