Every 10 years Maryland state government goes through two redistricting cycles, one for Congressional redistricting and one for General Assembly redistricting. The Congressional cycle came first and was completed on Oct. 20, 2011. The General Assembly redistricting was completed on Feb. 24, 2012.
A striking difference between the two redistricting cylcles is that the Congressional gerrymanders got a lot more attention in the Maryland press than the legislative ones. A reasonable inference to make from this discrepancy would be that the Congressional gerrymanders were a greater affront to democratic values.
Unfortunately, that would be a faulty inference.
To understand why this might be the case, one first has to understand press incentives. The press prefers to cover political stories that are controversial. By this is meant disagreement among official sources, especially partisan ones.
Relying on official sources on regular newsbeats for news sources provides instant credibility for a newspaper while reducing the cost of newsgathering. Partisan disagreement among official sources is an especially popular reporting formula because the press can say it reported on both sides of a political story and is thus objective and trustworthy.
This system of reporting generally works well—except when the interests of both political parties differ from those of the public.
Unfortunately, this was the case with the legislative gerrymanders.
A primary difference between the Congressional and legislative gerrymanders is that the former was primarily a partisan gerrymander whereas the latter was primarily a pro-incumbent gerrymander. The different political goals of the Congressional and legislative gerrymanders can largely be explained because if you already have a safe partisan majority, as was the case with the Democratic Party at the Maryland but not national levels of government, protecting incumbents becomes the higher priority.
The primary goal of the Congressional redistricting was to reduce the number of Maryland Republican seats from two to one, whereas the primary goal of the legislative redistricting was to preserve the status quo by giving safe seats to both Democrats and Republicans while preserving the Democratic Party’s two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. That is, for the great majority of both Democratic and Republican General Assembly members, the legislative redistricting resulted in them getting safe or even safer seats.
Therefore, the big loser wasn’t the members of one of the two incumbent political parties but the Maryland citizenry. They benefit when incumbents of both political parties face the risk of competition because competition is the mechanism of accountability in a representative democracy.
Unfortunately, however, for the reasons described above, the press tends to be missing in action when the only losers are the general citizenry. If incumbent members of both political parties aren’t going to complain, the press acts as though there is no story.
Admittedly, the Republican Party did criticize the Democratic Party controlled redistricting plan. But in part because so few of its incumbent General Assembly members felt harmed by the redistricting plan, the criticism came off more as an attempt to score political points with the public rather than to seek meaningful redistricting reform.
A similar set of political incentives occurred with the Maryland referendum to convene a state constitutional convention on Nov. 2, 2010. A majority of 54.4% of Marylanders voting on the question voted yes, but the referendum got minimal press attention because the leadership of both political parties opposed it. For example, not one member of the General Assembly spoke up on behalf of a yes vote while many spoke against it. Similarly, the General Assembly could convene a constitutional convention at any time it wanted, but it has refused to hold even a single hearing to discuss the implications of the Nov. 2, 2010 election.
The underlying reason the incumbent General Assembly members opposed a constitutional convention is that the Framers designed the institution of a constitutional convention primarily as a check on the General Assembly. The Framers didn’t want incumbent legislators changing the balance of power because they knew the legislators would have an institutional bias to favor the legislature. Conversely, they knew that if meaningful reform to enhance democratic competition and accountability for incumbent legislators was to happen, it would be unlikely to pass in the legislature.
Specifically, incumbent members of the General Assembly had good reason to fear that a constitutional convention in Maryland would lead to highly popular democratic reforms such as independent legislative redistricting, legislative transparency, and legislative term limits, which they strongly opposed.
I have written about these matters in other Maryland newspapers and don’t want to repreat myself here. See:
- Snider, J.H., Here’s why Maryland politicos must convene a constitutional convention, Washington Examiner, March 12, 2012
- Snider, J.H., It will take a con-con to untangle Maryland’s gerrymanders, Washington Post, February 12, 2012
- Snider, J.H., State ignores voters on constitutional convention; Majority voted in favor of con-con in 2010, yet it hasn’t been convened, Baltimore Sun, January 19, 2012.
- More information, including a petition to the Governor and General Assembly, can be found at MarylandConCon.org.
Let it suffice to say that if meaningful redistricting reform is ever to come to Maryland, it can only come via a state constitutional convention. States with the ballot initiative needn’t rely on a constitutional convention to place meaningful redistricting reform on the ballot, but Maryland doesn’t have the initiative. It does have the ballot referendum, but that only allows citizens to oppose passed legislation, not to put democratic reforms on the ballot.
It is unfortunate that the press is relatively indifferent to covering democratic travesties when the incumbents of both political parties benefit from those travesties at public expense. It is doubly unfortunate when both the problem (legislative gerrymanders) and solution (convening a state constitutional convention) are subject to such press incentives.
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Response to feedback on prior Patch redistricting commentary
On an unrelated matter, some people pointed out to me that less than a week after my last Patch commentary on redistricting, which highlighted the unpopular division of legislative District 33 into multiple districts, the Governor unexpectedly submitted a revised redistricting plan eliminating the division. I have received no information that the two events were linked.