Opinion: An Independent Redistricting Commission Is the Way Forward in Maryland

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People are supposed to choose politicians, not the other way around. However, that certainly isn’t the case for the residents of Western Maryland.

Republican representative Roscoe Bartlett was voted out of office after two decades of representing the 6th District in Congress after Democratic map drawers in Annapolis drastically altered the district following the 2010 census. Bartlett was drawn right out of office.

A challenge to that partisan gerrymander, Lamone v. Benisek, was decided Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the people’s fight for redistricting reform in Maryland just got a little more complicated. The court, by a slim 5-4 majority, decided not to find partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional in both Lamone v. Benisek and Rucho v. Common Cause – a challenge to a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina.

It’s very unfortunate that the Supreme Court has refused to act on the damage caused by partisan gerrymandering. Politicians are going to take advantage of this opportunity to rig the system in their favor, harming our democracy. This means we will have to rely on our legislature to step up and address the partisan gerrymandering problem in Maryland.

Lamone v. Benisek was filed in reaction to the General Assembly’s partisan gerrymander of Maryland’s 1st, 6th, 7th and 8th congressional districts back in 2011.

Specifically, the General Assembly moved Republican voters from Western Maryland out of the 6th District and added Democratic voters from Montgomery County. The intended result was for the 6th District — a previously majority-Republican district — to elect a Democrat, creating a 7-1 congressional district map in favor of Democratic party. In a deposition for the case, former governor Martin O’Malley even admitted that the intent was to flip the 6th congressional district.

The majority of the Supreme Court turned their backs on voters and the fight for fair representation by refusing to establish a constitutional standard against partisan gerrymandering. This affront to democracy turns democracy on its head by giving politicians the power to choose their own constituents. Marylanders should be choosing their representatives, not the other way around.

Recent efforts to address partisan gerrymandering in the legislature have not been successful. This year, the General Assembly refused to consider the map Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s redistricting commission drew to be used in the 2020 election. Gov. Hogan has proposed redistricting reforms in the past as well. Earlier this month he wrote a letter soliciting help with redistricting reform from Democratic U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. However, it’s going to take more than the will of the governor for real change to happen. Which is why the Supreme Court’s decision is so disappointing.

What Maryland needs is bipartisan support behind creating an independent redistricting commission.

An independent redistricting commission is a nonpartisan entity whose sole purpose is to draft and implement redistricting maps in an unbiased and transparent manner. It is a transparent process that utilizes community criteria, not partisan data. Currently, seven other states use these commissions to draw districts. One of them being California.

Three commissioners from the California Independent Redistricting Commission joined us last session in support of Hogan’s bill and to discuss their process for redistricting.

Independent redistricting commissions are the most effective solution to gerrymandering because people draw the maps, not politicians. Ultimately, an impartial, citizen-led commission will give back to voters the power to pick politicians.

The road to independent redistricting commissions is challenging and will involve hard work, but the fight for this reform is certainly not over. If a commission is adopted, vetting of potential members would be handled by the Maryland State Ethics Commission, avoiding the approach taken by the governor when creating the emergency commission. It is best that attempts at reform are truly a bipartisan effort.

In the meantime, we will continue to organize for reforms that will hold the state legislature accountable for its redistricting practices. This includes calling out the legislature for creating districts based on party bias and self-interest.

The five Supreme Court justices who made up the majority in the decision greenlit partisan gerrymandering by not setting a constitutional standard against an undemocratic and unfair practice abused by both political parties. In doing so, they turned their backs on voters and the fight for fair representation.

By benefiting from partisan gerrymandering, our politicians have given themselves the power to choose their own constituents. Marylanders should be choosing their representatives — not the other way around. Despite the court’s decision, we will not stop our fight for fair representation in Maryland.

— TIERRA BRADFORD AND JOANNE ANTOINE

The writers are, respectively, policy manager and executive director at Common Cause Maryland.

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