Ugly redistricting map spotlights
By Eric C. Olson
December 27, 2001
Redistricting brings out the worst of politics, in which the public
interest is subsumed entirely by personal and partisan
Put your finger anywhere on the proposed map of
reconstituted Maryland legislative districts, scratch the surface
and chances are you'll discover a disturbing story behind the new
boundaries. For example:
It's likely that Democratic Sen. Clarence
M. Mitchell IV, an outspoken leader from Baltimore City, will find
himself going head-to-head with Democratic Sen. George W. Della Jr.,
who represents both Baltimore County and the city. It sets up a
fratricidal contest between more urban black and suburban white
The blue-collar community of Dundalk will lose its senator
and two delegates, with Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Democrat and a
veteran of 39 years in the legislature, finding himself and his
district out in the cold.
In Montgomery County, Del. John A.
Hurson, a Democrat and chairman of the Environmental Matters
Committee, was moved from District 18 to District 20. It infuriated
African-American and Latino leaders, who believe the new slate of
four white incumbent Democrats in the 59 percent nonwhite district
stifles an opportunity for minority candidates to win.
Shore's two Republican senators, J. Lowell Stoltzfus and Richard F.
Colburn, will be pitted against each other even though Republicans
in the General Assembly are already marginal and outnumbered nearly
It would be easy for those spurned in redistricting to launch
broadsides against Gov. Parris N. Glendening's Redistricting
Advisory Committee for its proposal. The committee was, after all,
responsible for new political lines that will shortchange
communities, force lawmakers to run against each other and give and
take away representation. Much as they might seem the logical
subject of derision, it's not so much the individual players today
-- Mr. Glendening, Senate President Thomas V.Mike Miller and House
Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., all Democrats, and others -- as it is
the antiquated, ill-suited election system that deserves contempt.
Our winner-take-all elections force lawmakers every 10 years to
engage in the ugly process of playing kingmaker. With that
understanding, the real criterion for citizen praise or scorn ought
to be whether political leaders seek to keep or overhaul the
undemocratic system that creates kingmakers in the first place.
With little effort, Maryland could join most of the rest of the
democratic world and adopt a proportional representation voting
system in which election district lines matter much less. In
three-seat House districts, one-fourth of the vote would win a seat.
Currently, a quarter of the vote wins no representation. While those
votes may send some kind of vague message, they are essentially
Proportional election methods create more competitive
elections, increase voter turnout and reward more people with
representation of their choice. Today, if a voting community of
interest that represents up to 49 percent of a district casts all
its ballots for the same candidates, even that large minority will
not receive representation.
Whether it's for the Baltimore City
Council or the state legislature, winner-take-all elections suppress
minority representation. The current debate over eliminating
three-seat City Council districts in favor of single-seat districts
-- both of which use the winner-take-all election method -- is the
wrong question. Instead, reformers interested in accountability and
opening up representation ought to turn to proportional election
A bill in the 2000 General Assembly session would have
established a commission to study the benefits of adopting
proportional election systems for Maryland's legislature.
Unfortunately, legislators never voted it out of committee, and
citizens are paying for it as politics become more consolidated
within the hands of a few.
Unless Maryland moves to a proportional
system, which it could do even with the new map, the winners and
losers of the next decade are largely already decided by a
politically powerful elite.
Given the sophisticated computer
software of today, it's easy to rig winner-take-all districts. Under
proportional representation, no matter where the election lines are
drawn, it's likely that the full diversity of the state would become
reflected in our so-called "citizen" legislature. That would empower
the voters, not the kingmakers.
Eric C. Olson is deputy
director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a national
nonprofit organization based in Takoma