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In Md. and Va., efforts to end gerrymandering face major obstacl

2016-03-10

In deep-blue Maryland, Democratic state lawmakers have shown little interest in giving up their power to redraw the boundaries of congressional districts every 10 years. The Republicans who control the legislature in Virginia are similarly unwilling.

But with both states’ congressional maps under attack for unfairly favoring the majority party, a few lawmakers have come up with a new suggestion: Why don’t we give up our power together, negating the political effects?

“The only way to get through this now is for everybody to give up a little bit in a partisan sense for everyone to gain a lot in terms of principle,” said Maryland state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin. The Montgomery County Democrat is calling for a “Potomac compact” in which a single, independent panel would draw congressional lines for both states.

State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) has proposed turning control over to a commission made up of legislative appointees — provided that a comparable red state does the same.

And Del. Kirill Reznik, also a Democrat representing Montgomery, is calling for technical experts to redraw Maryland’s maps — considered some of the most gerrymandered in the country — but only if Virginia and Republican-leaning Pennsylvania follow suit.

“The political establishment here, especially in the legislature, does not feel it would be fair to unilaterally disarm,” Reznik said. “If we are going to fix it, it cannot just be Democrats saying, ‘We will be the nice guys.’ ”

So far, at least, these creative approaches seem no more likely to succeed than Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal — made earlier this year — for a constitutional amendment to turn redistricting power in Maryland over to an independent panel.

Although that idea was supported by 75 percent of Marylanders in a recent Goucher College poll, Democratic lawmakers assailed Hogan’s plan as poorly written and said it was developed without the perspective of minority communities.

Neither it nor the other proposals generated much discussion or interest at legislative hearings this month. Proposals for an independent redistricting commission have also gone nowhere in Virginia, even though that state’s districts are under legal challenge in a case that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this month.

The idea of independent commissions “seems like an intellectually compelling argument,” said Michael Li, who follows redistricting reform efforts for the Brennan Center for Justice. “But politics isn’t always about intellectual compellingness.”

Critics of allowing state legislatures to control redistricting say lawmakers of both parties tend to abuse their power, resetting boundaries in ways that protect incumbents and dilute the opposition.

One of the most egregious examples is Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, which one judge likened to a “broken-winged pterodactyl” because of how it stretches across narrow parts of four counties.

Democrats hold seven of Maryland’s eight congressional seats, even though registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the state by a far-smaller ratio of 2 to 1. In Virginia, where there is no party registration but Democrats have prevailed in recent years in statewide races, Republicans hold eight of 11 congressional seats.

Brian Cannon, executive director of the advocacy group One Virginia 2021, said redistricting reform is “not a Republican or Democratic issue. It’s just a power issue and whether you’re going to let politicians continue to abuse their power.”

Six states use independent redistricting commissions, and at least 11 state legislatures rely on advisory panels to help draw districts or resolve disputes. In Iowa, legislative staff members draw congressional maps based on geography and population, without data on party registration.

In California and Arizona, residents successfully launched ballot initiatives to overhaul redistricting powers. But that option is unavailable in Maryland and Virginia.

Across the country, Republicans in general have viewed independent commissions with suspicion, in part because their implementation led to an increase in the number of Democrats elected in California and Arizona, said Nick Goedert, a visiting professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., who has studied redistricting and is joining the faculty of Virginia Tech this summer.

Walter Olson, a Cato Institute fellow and co-chairman of Hogan’s redistricting task force, said the proposals for interstate agreements “can easily become an excuse for not acting at all.”

The longtime Democratic leaders of the Maryland General Assembly have said national reform should come from Congress, where Republicans retain power — in part because of partisan redistricting — or from the Supreme Court.

But House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) indicated that they would be open to adopting an independent redistricting commission if GOP-controlled states do so, as well.

Alexandra Hughes, Busch’s chief of staff, said the speaker plans to contact legislators in Virginia and Pennsylvania to determine their interest.

Hogan’s office had little patience for the initiatives aimed at compromise.

“It’s preposterous on its face that we have to wait for Virginia,” said Douglass Mayer, a spokesman for the governor. “Maryland shouldn’t wait to act for others to do what’s right.”

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