Mapmakers' mess shows disdain for voters

February 17, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

IN THE new 7th Congressional District, Baltimore marries Columbia, ghetto meets 'burb, with a bridesmaid standing by in northern Anne Arundel.

The new lobster-shaped 2nd District begins in Harford County, slides diagonally into Baltimore County, then splits with one claw hooking east toward Randallstown and the other reaching down through Baltimore to Cherry Hill and then into northern Anne Arundel County.

The 3rd District features elongated slivers of Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties connected by a narrow strip of concrete and rowhouses through the city in a link with Anne Arundel that extends to the Chesapeake Bay south of Annapolis.

Welcome to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's excellent redistricting adventure, 2002.

The Baltimore region's congressional district map would make Eldridge Gerry blush. He's the Massachusetts governor circa 1812 whose name decorates the art known as gerrymandering, that political exercise in which the democratic process gets turned on its head: Elected officials choose their voters, not the other way around.

The sacred U.S. Supreme Court guidepost - one person one vote - is replaced by "Democratic (or Republican) Performance Über Alles." This kind of performance measures a voting precinct's loyalty to the party in charge of redistricting, in this case the Democrats.

What this can mean in practice is stacking, cracking and packing the precincts that perform well for you. The monolithic black vote, overwhelmingly Democratic, gets shared around strategically. The 2nd District, for example, goes from 8.1 percent black now to 27.1 percent black in the new map.

The black vote not only votes Democratic, mapmakers say, it's not very "persuadable." It's not an election, then, it's a census. Republicans need not apply. Thus, a large chunk of the current 7th District was moved to the 2nd. Black voters were severed from the predominantly black 7th District along the Liberty Road corridor and shifted into the 2nd.

The 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th districts look in the new proposal like a can of lizards wriggling and writhing so you can't tell where one begins and another ends. They loop around and through each other. Their bulging extremities hang together by thin strands of topography, which seem no wider than a Baltimore alley.

The product only makes sense if you want to make Maryland's congressional delegation roughly proportionate to the voter registration breakdown, now about 2-1 Democratic. Currently, the delegation has four Republicans and four Democrats. One can also argue that since the Baltimore region is heavily Democratic, you might think of it as a super congressional district with three representatives. But you can't find the concept of super congressional districts in the Constitution.

Despite these concerns, no one expects the map to change as it moves toward approval by the General Assembly. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor has an alternative that puts the Baltimore region in a more sensible set of boundaries - without undermining the political objective.

But Governor Glendening wants to be as certain as he can be. He wants to be the man who engineered a 6-2 Democrat-to-Republican delegation from Maryland. His map gets contorted as it reaches for more Democratic "performance." If control of the House of Representatives goes to the Democrats by a handful of votes, that swing would be significant for him. It'll be his political legacy. Or it'll be part of his resume.

So any change is probably up to the voters. It'll be a long haul, but it could happen. Maybe the map will infuriate Marylanders so they begin to vote Republican or Independent.

There are areas such as eastern Baltimore County where voters have shown considerable independence. This would be the 2nd Congressional District, now represented by Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Mr. Ehrlich has been the pivot point for much of this year's new line drawing.

Some say the masters of the Democratic universe wanted Mr. Ehrlich to run again for Congress - so he wouldn't be there as a Republican candidate for governor annoying Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend on her march toward the governor's mansion. This map could, indeed, make it more likely the popular Mr. Ehrlich will run for Congress - not because it's been made easy for him, but because he's the only Republican who could win it. Party leaders will want him to defend it for the GOP - particularly when the alternative is a real long shot.

If it were a more Republican layout, another GOP candidate would have a chance. Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey might run if Mr. Ehrlich does go for governor. But she came out of two races for governor with significant negatives. Baltimore County Del. James F. Ports Jr., also a Republican, might run. The district has been stacked for Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive. But Mr. Ports defeated Mr. Ruppersberger in a bitter redevelopment fight recently, so he could be competitive.

Other possibilities for showing outrage over this map-making:

Good Republicans might win in other districts blatantly tailored to Democrats.

President Bush could have sufficient coattails to help them win.

Voters might decide they want to make the decisions.

Not possible, right?

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

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