Del. Kirill Reznik: Questions Remain About Nonpartisan Redistricting

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On August 6th Governor Hogan announced the formation of a commission to develop a plan for nonpartisan and independent redistricting reform. Many Democrats throughout the State expressed skepticism over the plan and were immediately denounced by Republicans and independent commission proponents as being partisan.

I have long been a skeptic of so-called independent, non-partisan commissions, and not just because I happen to be an elected Democrat in a Democratic-majority State. In studying the issue, I have come to believe that such a commission is much easier said than done. Inevitably, commission members are appointed by elected (partisan) officials, or applicants are chosen from balanced partisan lists. In the 14 states where some type of commission has been enacted this has been the case. Only in two; California, with multiple levels of appointment to try and deaden the effect of partisanship; and Iowa, where non-partisan legislative staff draw the maps and then voted up or down by the legislature, come closest to achieving some kind of independence.

This brings me to the Governor Hogan’s Commission: seven members; three Republicans, three Democrats, and one unaffiliated, all appointed by the Governor; and four members appointed by the presiding officers and minority leaders of both Chambers, likely two Democrats and two Republicans. A total of 11 members appointed in a bipartisan fashion. Let’s not take anything away from the Governor – this is a laudable achievement. Governor O’Malley’s Commission in 2011 didn’t even try to achieve such a balance. But it is not nonpartisan and independent.

The members include one retired federal judge, two representatives of right-leaning, libertarian think tanks; the CATO Institute and the Maryland Public Policy Institute (despite attempts to convince everyone they are nonpartisan); the CEO of an infrastructure, water, and trade think tank; leaders from the League of Women Voters and NAACP, representing women and minority voters; and a banker (no idea how this is even remotely relevant).

Here is what the Commission doesn’t have; a demographer, or a cartographer, or a mathematician, or a statistician, or a computer scientist. Not a single person whose professional training is to draw maps or unbiasedly analyze data. So I ask the Governor, where are the professionals? Representation from groups like Common Cause and the NAACP is critically important, but only a nonpartisan commission can come up with a nonpartisan plan for redistricting. A bipartisan commission will at best be a compromise, not a new way forward. It may shift the balance a bit in one direction or another or it could become the subject of renewed partisan debate. Technical expertise, and an emphasis on getting it right over politics, is the only way to produce a plan that is both nonpartisan and independent.

The second complaint often heard by those questioning the Commission is that redistricting reform needs to be advocated for on a national level. That argument should not be dismissed either. In 2011 after all was said and done, Maryland Democrats managed to add one additional Democratic Congressional seat. Compare that to the dozens and dozens of seats Republicans manipulated in states like Texas, Ohio, Michigan, and others. This is not a Maryland problem as some of my Republicans colleagues like to argue. As a State Delegate I represent District 39, but the laws I vote on affect the whole State, in the same way that a vote of a Texas Congressman has the same effect as a vote from a Maryland Congressman. So, maybe Maryland can develop a truly nonpartisan system that will be a model for the rest of the country, or maybe the Republicans will quietly laugh at us while continuing to run roughshod over their own maps.

So I am watching the process, and am hopeful that a truly nonpartisan, independent plan is possible, but I’m very skeptical.

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