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Taking the politics out of legislative districts; or at least trying

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Maryland Democrats in Washington are proposing competing bills with the same purpose; overhauling how the nation’s congressional districts are drawn.

Freshman Congressman Jamie Raskin has introduced a bill that would set up independent commissions to draw congressional districts.

"You know if your car isn’t working right, you don’t need a new message, you need a new car," he says. "And if your engine’s not working, you don’t need a new message you need a new engine. And American democracy needs a new engine."

Meanwhile, Rep. John Delaney, who won his seat representing Western Maryland and parts of Montgomery County because of Democratic gerrymandering after the last census, is sponsoring the Open Our Democracy Act. That also creates independent commissions to draw congressional district lines.

"I think the federal government should pass a law, the Congress should pass a law that says states are required to use independent commissions to establish district lines," he said, pointing to an opinion by the late Justice Antonin Scalia that said such a commission was constitutional, under the elections clause of the constitution.

"So that’s clearly the answer for this gerrymandering problem which goes on all around the country," he said. "And so I support redistricting reform at a federal level, and I also support it at state levels."

To understand what’s going on here, we should start across the Potomac in Virginia, which has a Democratic governor, two Democratic U-S senators, and went for Hillary Clinton in the last election. But it’s represented in the U.S. House by seven Republicans and only four Democrats.

On the Maryland side of the river, where Democrats control the General Assembly, and draw Congressional district lines, the Republicans are largely locked out.

That’s rankled Maryland’s Republican Governor, Larry Hogan, and led him to call for an independent to commission to draw district lines. The General Assembly passed such a bill in its last session, but with the requirement that it wouldn’t take effect unless five neighboring states did the same thing.

Raskin’s bill for independent commissions also calls for ranked, choice voting for House members, which means voters would list their top candidates instead of picking between just a Republican and a Democrat.

Then candidates who don’t meet a certain threshold would be winnowed out of the race. And as they are knocked out, voters’ second and third choices then get their support, which Raskin says empowers everyone.

"We’ve got to move from the zero-sum game, winner-take-all politics of single member districts, to the multi-member, multi-winner districts that will open up American democracy to new voices and new choices," he argued.

The number two Democrat in the House, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, is also on board with the effort.

"I’m for a nationwide independent redistricting," he said. "Try redistricting throughout the country. That’s the fair way to do it. Doing it by state doesn’t work cause then you have one state playing off against another. And I’ve made that very clear."

But Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress opposes the efforts. Andy Harris, who represents the Eastern Shore, accuses Democrats, especially former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, of being hypocritical.

"Clearly in states which are Democrat-controlled like Maryland, they’ve got very good at it," he said. "When I first entered politics, we were a four-four split. And now we’re a seven-one. They’ve got very good at redistricting," Harris complained. "And our former governor, Mr. O’Malley, who did the redistricting, now thinks that you should have non-partisan redistricting."

Former Governor Martin O’Malley has acknowledged in a deposition in a high profile lawsuit that Democrats were trying to increase their numbers in Congress as they drew district lines in 2011. But in a lecture at Boston College School of Law last winter he called for a state-by-state effort to end gerrymandering of congressional district.

Harris said he opposes both Raskin's and Delaney's bills because the Constitution gives states the power and right to draw their own district lines.

"Because this is federalism, each state should be able to figure out how it decides who to send to Washington," he argued. "I wouldn’t mind if we had an amendment to the constitution, like we have in Maryland, that says to the greatest extent possible districts should geographically compact and respect geographic and jurisdictional boundaries. I think that would be fair."

Given the opposition from Republicans like Harris, it’s unlikely either Democrat's redistricting bill will ever see the light of day in GOP controlled Washington. But they say they’re just glad to get a dialog started.

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