Power of the petition

Our view: Effort to repeal congressional district maps has merit

March 29, 2012

The drive to throw out Maryland's new congressional district maps by petitioning them to referendum is, in all likelihood, something of a futile gesture. Even if the opponents can muster the necessary signatures — battling in the process referendum fatigue from parallel efforts on same-sex marriage — the new, convoluted maps will still be in effect this November. And if the critics of the maps prevail at the ballot box, all they will succeed in doing is getting the same people who brought us the current mess to draw the maps all over again. That said, this may be a gesture that's worth making.

The congressional districts drawn by Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration and approved by the General Assembly last fall bear no resemblance to any recognizable community or geographic divisions in the state. Districts twist and curve from one community to the next in a transparent effort to maintain and expand Democrats' partisan advantage in our Washington delegation. Rather than creating districts likely to produce representatives who mirror the diversity of this state, the map makers drew lines likely to cement incumbents' hold on their districts. The one exception is the case of Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, whose rural, Western Maryland district, has been yoked to the suburban and urban precincts of Montgomery County in hopes that he could be defeated by a Democrat.

The elected officials in charge of the process made a show of seeking public input — they held a series of open meetings around the state — but it's obvious whose opinions really counted. Redistricting in Maryland and most other states amounted to a chance for politicians to pick their voters, not the other way around.

It doesn't have to be that way. A small minority of states have taken the redistricting process out of political hands. Most recently, California voters adopted two referendums that established a nonpartisan Citizens Redistricting Commission, the members of which are split among Republicans, Democrats, independents and members of smaller political parties who are chosen at random from among a pool of qualified applicants. The result is that the nation's largest state is expected to have the most competitive races it has seen in decades.

The options for Marylanders to effect that kind of change are few. Opponents of the maps attempted to get them thrown out through a federal lawsuit, which could have led to a judge redrawing the lines, but they were unsuccessful. Unlike Maryland's state legislative maps, which must be contiguous and compact and show regard for political boundaries, there are few standards for how congressional maps must be drawn. The plaintiffs were unable to persuade a judge that the districts violated the Voting Rights Act, so, gerrymandered as they are, they stand. Maryland voters also lack the powers that Californians do to create laws or propose constitutional amendments through the petition process.

But Maryland law does allow voters to strike down acts of the General Assembly through the referendum process. If critics of the maps can collect some 53,000 valid signatures by July, they can place the maps on the ballot. In most cases, a successful effort to petition a law to a vote stops it from going into effect. But because the district maps passed as emergency legislation, they would remain in effect until after November's vote. And success at the ballot box would not mean that new lines would be drawn by an independent commission or even by a judge. The process would simply start over again.

But such a vote would give the people the opportunity to send a message to Maryland's elected leaders that could not be delivered in any other way. Politicians continue to draw district maps for partisan advantage because they believe they can get away with it. Even if some lose an election after playing a role in such an effort, it would be difficult to make the case that voter anger over redistricting was the cause. But a referendum on the congressional maps would allow Marylanders to clearly express their views on the matter. Even if such a vote didn't lead to the kind of redistricting reforms Maryland needs, our elected leaders would be forced to acknowledge the public discontent over partisan gerrymandering. The next time they draw the lines, they could ignore that message at their peril.

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