Donald Fry -- Wanted: Candidates’ thoughts on redistricting reform

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By: Donald C. Fry 

As the election season shifts into high gear, voters are hearing from candidates on many issues relating to Maryland’s competitiveness for business growth and job creation. For example, candidates for governor are talking about topics ranging from the state’s tax structure and regulatory reform to strengthening its workforce.

But candidates have not talked as much about a fundamental competitiveness issue that governors and state lawmakers control – reforming Maryland’s election redistricting process.

Two candidates have brought the issue up – Heather Mizeur, who lists redistricting reform as one of her campaign issues, and Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, who reportedly told an audience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore this week that he also favors the creation of a non-partisan commission to craft a plan for equitable redistricting to end gerrymandering in our state.

Good for Mizeur and Brown. It would benefit voters to hear more from candidates for governor and for the General Assembly on the issue of injecting genuine competition into the election process during the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census.

Why? Because many point to rampant gerrymandering by both parties – whichever is in power – here and across America as the major cause of decreasing voter choice, legislative deadlocks in Congress, evaporating bi-partisanship in state capitals and a growing disdain for government bodies.

Advocates everywhere decry the polarization and gridlock in Washington that is stifling decision-making in Congress, for which job approval ratings averaged less than 15 percent in the most recent round of national public opinion polls.

Acute polarization in the Maryland General Assembly is widely acknowledged as well, though it has not spawned gridlock per se because Democrats hold a controlling majority under the State House dome. But the days of any substantial Democrat-Republican collaboration in Annapolis are long gone.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the number of members considered ideologically “in the middle,” between most liberal and most conservative philosophies, declined from 252 – almost 60 percent of the members – in 1994 to four members in 2013. This is according to a study by the D.C. lobbying firm of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti as  reported in the Washington Post by Chris Cillizza, founder and editor of The Fix.

Harder to explain is that “the middle” has also dropped out of the Senate, whose members are elected statewide, and therefore are not subject to redistricting, but are similarly polarized. Cillizza reports.

Nevertheless, increasing polarization is distorting the traditional legislative process into dysfunction at precisely the time when Maryland and America most need our lawmakers to act creatively and collaboratively to address serious fiscal and economic challenges that frame our future. 

Business leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee are calling for redistricting reform in Maryland where, like many other states, lawmakers draw up the election districts. District configuration by incumbents profoundly affects competition for congressional office, but also shapes the representation of Baltimore City and the state’s counties in the Maryland General Assembly.

"It's often said that democracy is about voters choosing their politicians. But in the redistricting process, it's politicians choosing their voters,” says Professor Nate Persily, an expert on redistricting who developed Columbia Law School’s, a repository for nonpartisan congressional redistricting plans for all 50 states.

Lawmakers in Maryland choose their voters in particularly blatant ways, according to published assessments. For example, New Republic calls Maryland’s 3rd Congressional district “the most gerrymandered in the nation.”

The wandering, convoluted district prompted a federal judge’s oft-quoted description of it – ironically in the process of approving it – as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

Marylanders overwhelmingly favor redistricting reform, according to answers to a poll question placed by the Greater Baltimore Committee on the October 2013 statewide public opinion survey conducted by Gonzales Research and Marketing Strategies.

Statewide, 73 percent of Maryland voters think having an independent commission draw up voting districts is better than the current system where elected officials redraw voting districts, while 19 percent said they think having elected officials draw up voting districts is the better approach. Eight percent offered no opinion.

The poll results reveal strong support among all political constituencies for having independent commissions conduct the state’s redistricting process. They show that:

* 68 percent of Democrats favor redistricting by independent commissions, while 22 percent favor redistricting conducted by elected officials.

* 78 percent of Republicans favor commissions and 17 percent favor elected officials.

* 83 percent of independent voters favor commissions and 8 percent favor elected officials.

Meanwhile, a dozen states have turned to some form of commission in order to “take redistricting out of the hands of state legislators who have a personal stake in the outcome,” reports Stateline, the independent news site of the Pew Charitable Trust.

Some of these states go to greater lengths than others to achieve independence for their redistricting commission. Some forbid elected officials from serving, while others include them, reports Stateline

The state that has gained attention for implementing the most aggressive method for redistricting has been California, where voters took redistricting completely away from state lawmakers and transferred the responsibility to an independent citizens’ commission.

Maryland is not California, and voters here are not able to unilaterally petition a change in the redistricting process onto an election ballot, as was the approach taken in California.

Nevertheless, if Maryland is to become more competitive for business growth and job creation, leaders in both business and government must embrace a vision for better governance for all Marylanders.

In its 2013 report, “A Compact for Competitiveness,” business leaders at the Greater Baltimore Committee urged Maryland government leaders to consider reforming our state’s redistricting process “to cultivate more election competitiveness and a better balance of ideas that will lead to better policy solutions.”

Competition is the fundamental driver of a free-market economy. It should also be a fundamental element of our state’s election process.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown was the only gubernatorial candidate to talk about redistricting reform.

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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.