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Opinion

Why Democrats should vote to kill the 'Marymander'

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Two hundred years after the infamous 1812 Massachusetts state Senate map that gave us the word "gerrymander," Gov. Martin O'Malley and a majority of the General Assembly have made Maryland the most gerrymandered state in the nation, according to the nonpartisan geospatial analysis firm Azavea. Given the extent of gerrymandering around the country, it's no mean feat that Maryland is now a step below the other bottom-dwellers.

What clinched the dunce title for Maryland is the atrocious 3rd Congressional District, which looks like blood spatter from a crime scene, and is the third-least-compact district in the country. The 3rd sprawls from Towson to Annapolis to Olney and parts of Silver Spring, while excluding most of the areas in between. It requires a good boat and state-of-the-art GPS to navigate.

Thanks to the way the 3rd was drawn, Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards lost every single one of her many Montgomery County constituents, and Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen's Montgomery County-based district now borders Pennsylvania. The 3rd looks like it does because the would-be kingmakers in Annapolis wanted to help certain Democrats at the expense of others.

Overall, the outlandish congressional gerrymander moved more than 1.5 million Marylanders to different districts, including more than half of Montgomery County residents. This "Marymander" also divides numerous neighborhoods and communities of interest. Fortunately, Marylanders rebelled against this affront to reason and fair play, and petitioned this egregious gerrymander to the ballot. Voters can repeal it and advance the chances of real redistricting reform by voting against Question 5 on the Nov. 6 ballot.

If voters repeal this gerrymander, the governor and General Assembly would be required to redraw the congressional districts for the 2014-2020 elections. Or far better, they could establish an independent commission to do so. After two centuries of gerrymandering, it's clear that politicians can't be trusted to draw political boundaries that are fair and rational. The solution isn't to let elected officials keep doing it, but to remove them from the redistricting process, as California and Arizona have done, by setting up independent commissions.

Admittedly, redistricting reform will be challenging. Voters in Maryland have the right to petition recently enacted laws and place them on the ballot (the right of referendum), but they lack the right to place proposed laws on the ballot (the right of initiative). Nevertheless, if voters resoundingly reject this outrageous gerrymander, General Assembly members might conclude that it is in their self-interest to be seen as reformers. It could prompt them to vote to remove themselves from the process of drawing congressional boundaries. The General Assembly would need at least to strengthen the state's standards for congressional redistricting -- including compactness standards, a criterion that already exists for legislative redistricting.

Democratic proponents of the gerrymander say, correctly, that Republicans gerrymander in states where they control the state legislature, and that this justifies Democrats doing whatever it takes to gain a congressional seat. It's a bogus argument, because the 2012 congressional results won't be affected if the gerrymander is repealed. Democrats will still control redistricting, even if this map is repealed.

Marylanders have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to advance real redistricting reform and promote much-needed competition in congressional general elections by voting against Question 5.

Phil Andrews. D-Gaithersburg/Rockville, is a member of the Montgomery County Council. He also served as executive director of Common Cause Maryland from 1988 to 1994.

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