Getting to nonpartisan redistricting – without getting ambushed by the political calendar

Maryland's partisan, flawed system of drawing electoral districts can be shifted to one that's a national standard. But many interests compete to keep the status quo and a tricky political calendar before 2020 has to be navigated.

/By Mathew Goldstein/ Congressional and General Assembly districts are defined every 10 years following the national census.  Maryland assigns primary responsibility to the governor, who submits a proposed map to the General Assembly which can opt instead for its own redistricting plan.  The governor invariably draws the districts to concentrate the other party's voters in  as few districts as possible to minimize their presence in the U.S. Congress.  As a result Maryland has some of the most gerrymandered state congressional districts in the country, which is a notable achievement given the competition from other states for this title.

 In 2011 Governor O'Malley appointed the Democratic governor’s own patronage chief as chair of his redistricting advisory committee.  The other four members were the Democratic president of the Senate, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Delegates, a Democrat who had chaired O’Malley’s reelection bid in Prince George’s County (and has since gone to prison for federal tax evasion), and one Republican, a former one-term delegate selected without consulting GOP officials.  The committee drew the map in secret behind closed doors and released it on the Internet with a one week comment period.  The governor published the final map on a Saturday evening without a public hearing, just two days before the special session of the legislature he had called to approve it.  The bill was introduced the following Monday morning, a joint hearing was held that afternoon, and the Senate redistricting committee approved it immediately after the hearing. It passed in the Senate next morning.  The House of Delegates followed similarly quick procedures. It took a little more than 72 hours to have it passed and signed by the governor.  Not a single Republican voted for the plan at any stage of the process.

 Republican governor Hogan has decided to create a bipartisan commission to explore reforming Maryland’s redistricting process.  Because the state constitution stipulates that the governor's redistricting plan goes into effect automatically unless the state House of Delegates and Senate can agree on an alternative within 45 days, a second-term Governor Hogan could potentially render the U.S. House of Representatives more Republican - provided that Republican Senators in the Democratic Party dominated General Assembly can sustain a filibuster.  Neither party knows who will control the governor's mansion in 2020.  Therefore there is currently a short window of no more than two years for both Republicans and Democrats to agree to reform the redistricting process.  By 2018 it will be too late.

 One redistricting reform proposal is to create a citizens' redistricting commission chosen by lottery from a pool of applicants.  Applicants would be required to demonstrate that they voted in each of the previous 12 elections.  A retired judge would chair the commission. 

 However, redistricting is a technical task that requires expertise in the relevant mathematics and computer science.  Accordingly a better approach would be for Maryland to set a neutral mathematical standard for identifying a good redistricting map.  The standard would specify a criteria to measure the physical compactness of each district and to quantify any other criteria that the law makers want to rely on to distinguish better maps from worse maps.  For example, if the incumbent members of the General Assembly value retaining the existing districts then they can add a measure to the redistricting equation that favors preservation of the existing districts.  There is room for additional criteria without undermining the integrity of the process provided that the criteria are non-partisan and the resulting districts remain compact (because more weight is given to the compactness measure than to the other measures in the final rating).  the constraints needed to meet state and federal requirements will need to be well defined so that maps can unambiguously be identified as complying with the constraints.  Maryland requires that election districts be contiguous and be drawn with "due regard" for natural and political boundaries, so these goals will need to be quantified (neither of these constraints apply to Congressional districts).  A minimum number of majority minority districts may need to be identified, and a maximum difference in the number of eligible voters residing within the districts should be identified, to try to ensure compliance with federal law.

 The governor can start the process by publishing a baseline redestricting map.  Citizens of the state are then invited to submit their own redistricting map with a higher rating than the governor's by a fixed deadline.  The redistricting map that complies with all of the constraints while earning the highest overall rating is automatically adopted.  If more than one citizen submitted map achieves the same highest rating then the proposal submitted earliest would be deemed the winner.  As an incentive, the top rated citizen  proposals are given cash awards.  There can be three separate contests, one each for Congressional, state Senate, and House of Delegates districts.  Alternatively, the Senate and House of Delegates maps can be combined if the Senate districts are supposed to be combinations of several adjacent House of Delegates districts.

 Now, it may be that Democrats in the General Assembly are averse to redistricting reform for Congress because they must counter the gerrymandering in Republican majority states, or because they are confident that Governor Hogan will not be re-elected, or that even if he is re-elected it will be the General Assembly, and not the governor, who will draw the 2020 Congressional districts. In that case, the focus of redistricting reform can be limited for now to the state Senate and the House of Delegates.

 Even so, it should be done the right way. By acknowledging that redistricting is a mathematical optimization problem and assigning to the law the role of defining the equation to be optimized instead of defining who draws the districts, Maryland could become a world leader in honest, democratic redistricting.