Ugly Redistricting Map Spotlights System's Flaws

 By Eric C. Olson

Baltimore Sun, December 27, 2001

 REDISTRICTING brings out the worst of politics, in which the public interest is subsumed entirely by personal and partisan considerations.

 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 voters. 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.

 The Eastern 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 3-1.

 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 wasted.

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 methods. 

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 Park, Maryland. )