Thursday, October 25, 2012

Question 5: Maryland's Shameful Distinction

Amongst the litany of questions you will be asked on November 6 will be the seemingly innocuous Question 5, which is not much of a question at all:

Establishes the boundaries for the State’s eight United States Congressional Districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution.

Well, yes you do, dear ballot question.  I will just go ahead and fulfill my part in this cute little dance by checking "For the Referred...STOP!

Now look at this rabbit one one-hundreth of a second after being hit by a shotgun blast:
Think of that poor poor rabbit before you vote for Question 5.  That's Congressional District 3, currently represented by John Sarbanes.  I'm not going to say the current configuration of that District is all that much better, but this, my friends, is a distinct tragedy of great magnitude.  When you need to use two modes of transportation, and more than 6 hours, to spend time in all areas of your District, there's a problem.

Maryland has the recent distinction of having the least compact Congressional Districts in the Country as determined by a computer program.  There's no doubt that these tactics for allowing representatives to choose their voters happens all over the Country, but the unsightliness of these maps ticks up as the party in power becomes more concentrated.

A former Congressional Staffer who lives in the area was kind enough to offer their analysis of why Question 5 is a bad idea, and told me I could post those thoughts.  I think you'll find that there really is no good reason to vote FOR this proposal, and innumerable reasons to vote against.

I dont' know if you've covered Question 5 yet on the blog, but if not I think it would be a good discussion.  You're probably aware that it puts the gerimandered Congressional district map in front of the voters for an up or down vote.  But unless you are a super educated voter (I know you are) the language of the question is so anodyne that most voters would assume they are just checking the box on a Constitutional duty.  As a matter of politics, good for the Democratic Secretary of State for approving the language, but as a matter of principle they are trying to pull a fast one over on the voters.
... I am an opponent of politicians choosing their voters through redistricting.  [Others have said] that "you can't take politics out of politics", what I [would respond] that partisan gerrimandering does just that.  By creating unresponsive partisan districts politicians only have to respond to the voices of the far left or the far right- Andy Harris loses his Democrats, Dutch loses his conservative territory, Donna Edwards has already said that she's going to actively ignore the Republican precincts of Anne Arundel she received, and Republicans in Washington County now are going to be drowned out in a new district that stretches from Chevy Chase circle to Deep Creek Lake.  Andy Harris and Dutch losing members of the other party means that there is less incentive for them to get all communities on board.  Politics, in its most basic sense (the hashing out of interests to come to a conclusion), is removed from politics.
On a local, practical level Howard County has three members of Congress now.  The borders of these districts within HoCo are serpentine and almost illogical- Glenwood paired with Druid Hill in Baltimore City and Hereford in far northern Baltimore County; Savage and Elkridge matched with Harve de Grace; then Columbia dissected between three members of Congress (look at the map Long Reach/Oakland Mills is like a jigsaw puzzle that makes the fight over Council District 1 look straightforward).  How does this impact our county's representation in the Congress?  The easy answer from the Dem establishment is that it is better because we'd rather have three members fighting for our interests rather than one.  But that's not an accurate representation of what actually happens.  As someone who worked in Congress for a decade the natural inclination of all members is to respond to your base.  In none of the districts that Howard is a part of are we a "base".  We need road funding, or grant assistance, or our County Exec needs help luring a business or getting an earmark we are a responsibility to be passed among three members, none of whom has to any initiative on the work but will gladly take the credit if something positive happens.  Howard County is a pot of wealthy, low need Democrats that can be divided up as a way to make safe D districts that much more uncompetitive. 
I saw how this happens first hand, when members look at a jurisdiction as votes to be divided rather than as a community to be represented.  That community was Detroit.  Four members of Congress dividing Detroit meant that no one took ownership at the federal level.  Sure, the city had Congressional representation that was less competent than ours, but the pattern is the same.  I saw the same thing happen in Salt Lake City (where the Democratic city was dilluted to make three Republican leaning seats instead having one D seat and two Rs).  Too often voters see the Congress as a place where a bunch of hacks vote yes or no on partisan legislation.  But there is another side, which actually takes up more work and resources than the voting, and that is the management of a community's issues before the federal bureaucracy- the grinding process of grants and earmarks; the finding of lost veteran benefits; attracting business and economic resources; and the laserlike application of small legislative fixes and technical corrections that can have huge impacts to a business or local government operation.  We won't get that sort of representation if in the distance of a small jog in Oakland Mills you pass through three CDs where we are only thought of as surplus Dems to be traded.
(Emphasis Added).

Despite all of this, there is a very good chance Question 5 passes in two weeks.  In fact, some of you, in your hurry, will probably unintentionally vote For Question 5, and then remember the exploded rabbit on your drive home (memorialized with a smack of the steering wheel).  The way in which the Question is worded shields the underlying crime scene from review.  "This is all a mere technicality, folks.  The tough work has been done for you.  Carry on."

Reluctant supporters have responded "So, us Dems are supposed to vote down our plan, helping Democrats, while Republicans across the Country are going to get their similarly offensive maps approved? No, thanks.  I'm having rabbit for dinner."  Ok.  Do that.  But recall Congressional Staffer's admonition above.  Howard County gets the splintered end of the stick...for the next 10 years.  If I can't get you on the "undermine democracy" point, maybe I can woo you with a fixed pothole or two.

I don't like referenda questions.  I don't think we ever will be capable of providing a sufficiently educated voter base to answer these questions appropriately.  But on Question 5, I appreciate the opportunity.