Electoral reforms needed

May 18, 2000|By Eric Olson

THE BUZZ over who will win and who will lose the next round of redistricting has already hit the halls of Annapolis and the pundits in full dramatic fashion, with intrigue, back-stabbing and pure power-jockeying at center stage - committee chairs versus individual lawmakers, Baltimore versus suburban Washington, Baltimore County versus city, rural versus urban.

All this and more is expected even though redrawing districts will not begin for another year and likely will not finish before 2002.

No matter who they are as individuals, powerful insiders and establishment politicos will "win" and decide for Maryland's voters who will represent them for the next decade. Citizens will be the ultimate losers in this undemocratic process, in which statehouse leaders carve up communities to create less competitive elections for themselves and their friends.

Redistricting is intended to adjust for population shifts and equalize the number of people represented by each legislator. Instead, it has become a power-grab to pack political opponents into as few districts as possible and to enhance one's own partisan advantage.

While this is not new - the "gerrymander," named for onetime Massachusetts Gov. Eldridge Gerry, has been with us since at least 1812 - the growing sophistication of computer technology brings more frightening precision to maximizing partisan returns and diluting votes.

As practiced in Maryland, the redistricting process contributes to poor measures of electoral health: low voter turnout, little or no competition and uninspiring candidates spawned by machine politics. When districts are drawn to insulate legislators from competition, voters are robbed of having a choice. A second political party, let alone a third party, is not viable in a gerrymandered district. This removes incentives to work hard in office to win votes.

Government does not tolerate business monopolies because, without competition, companies can price gouge consumers and produce products of inferior quality. In a monopolistic marketplace, consumers are at one business' mercy without choices. Likewise in gerrymandered politics, voters can either accept districting monopolies and cast essentially wasted votes or stay home, which more and more citizens are doing at an alarming rate.

There is an alternative. Fairer redistricting models exist.

The League of Women Voters has designed impartial standards for use in redistricting, and is leading an effort in Ohio, which has been joined by the state AFL-CIO, to take the process away from politicians.

Ten years ago, Washington state used a nonpartisan, criteria-driven commission to draw congressional and state legislative districts, resulting in the nation's most competitive U.S. House elections of the 1990s.

Washington state had seven match-ups last decade decided by less than five percent margins; another eight contests resulted in margins of victory between five percent and ten percent. Further, seven of the state's congressional incumbents during the decade were defeated by challengers. By comparison, congressional incumbents nationally are re-elected more than 98 percent of the time.

Iowa also used a commission method of redistricting and today enjoys meaningful elections. Incumbents there are not immune to close contests. In 1996, for example, four of Iowa's five House races were competitive, determined by less than 10 percent margins.

By contrast, Maryland's elections have been strikingly non-competitive. In 1998, all eight U.S. House members won by landslide margins of at least 20 percent. Since 1992, 30 of the state's 36 U.S. House contests have been landslides of 20 percent or more. Elections for the General Assembly are similarly non-competitive.

For a significant voter-friendly reform, Maryland could elect state delegates under a proportional representation voting system, as used in most of the world's democracies and many American localities.

This could be achieved as simply as giving voters one vote for every three seats rather than the current three votes per three seats. The effect of this means that each winning candidate represents about a third of the district's voters instead of all three winning candidates gaining votes from the same majority and leaving up to 49 percent of the minority without a representative of their choice. Gerrymandering districts to prevent competition is much harder under a proportional system.

Additional reforms to our political system should be considered, although the opportunity for fairer redistricting comes but once a decade. Let's step up and, at minimum, follow the nonpartisan redistricting lead of the League of Women Voters, Washington state and Iowa. After all, democracy should mean voters choosing their representatives, not legislators choosing their voters.

Eric C. Olson is deputy director of the nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy, based in Takoma Park.

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