Democrats busy choosing their voters for 2002 election

October 28, 2001|By C. Fraser Smith

THERE THEY go again.

This time they're stealing the 2002 election. Okay, maybe it's not exactly stealing. Would you consider rigging?

They call it redistricting, but it's really re-rigging - re-doing the rigging they did after the Census 10 years ago.

If the word (redistricting) sends you screaming into the street, think of it as hijacking.

It's all very legal. They're doing it because the state constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court say they must.

"They" in this case are the Democrats. The party in power controls redistricting. In Maryland, that would be the Democrats. Our governor is a Democrat. So are most state legislators, both U.S. senators and four of eight members of Congress.

"We'd be doing the same thing," a GOP legislator said last week.

So, if you ventured out to the public hearings over the last few months, you saw feverish politicians, numbers-crunchers and a few civic-minded gluttons for punishment with maps and statistical analyses of voting in Maryland precinct by precinct.

What they were looking for was the data needed to achieve the legal requirement of balanced districts: one person, one vote. Pure democracy. The high court has ruled that democracy prevails only when roughly the same number of people live in each congressional or legislative district.

But that important decision has led to mischief. Ruling parties want election districts in which their candidates have won before the first campaign lawn sign is planted.

Experience shows they're likely to succeed, according to Nate Persily, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

"The process of drawing district lines has a greater effect on the democracy than the actual casting of ballots," he says. "Often we think of democracy as voters choosing their representatives. In the redistricting process, politicians choose their voters.

"The decisions made throughout that process almost always predetermine election outcomes," he says. For decades, perhaps.

Funnily enough, though, since most of the participants in Maryland are Democrats, some of the sharp elbow jostling is intramural.

This year, for example, black congressmen may be asked to give up some of their prime voter real estate to help another Democrat beat a Republican. One borrows from the politically rich to help the relative poor.

There are many subplots:

Democrats would like to have congressional districts in which six of their stalwarts can be assured of victory. The current split of four Democrats, four Republicans would become 6-2 for the Dems.

In service to this goal of 6-2 and to enhance the prospects of two young Democrats, we may see two largely Montgomery County districts looping into adjacent territories to grab the needed Democratic muscle.

Pending the outcome of redistricting, state Sen. Chris Van Hollen is running against Kennedy family member Mark Shriver, a member of the House of Delegates. To help both - and to avoid a race in which one of them has to lose - they'll try to give each his own personal district.

Mr. Shriver, having paid his dues in community service and in the General Assembly, hopes to defeat Rep. Connie Morella, a Republican who has withstood many challenges. Because she is so strong, the district makers want to give him all the help they can.

You may find these exertions extraordinary. You should: Sometimes votes on important legislation are cast in exchange for protection during redistricting.

Extraordinary, but not unprecedented.

In 1992, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer wanted a hospitable district for his Republican friend Helen Delich Bentley.

In that year, too, the federal courts seemed to say Maryland needed another minority district. That requirement and other factors created a domino effect tumbling then-congressman Tom McMillen into an Eastern Shore-Anne Arundel district with Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest. Shoreman Gilchrest, ensconced in the political catbird seat, won.

Penn's Professor Persily says all of this exotic back-scratching can backfire if Democrats get greedy and spread their numbers too thin, diluting their strength.

Good feeling about President Bush, should it continue, could help GOP candidates overturn decisions now being pre-voted in a smoke-free room near you.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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