Why Maryland Democrats should vote NO on Question 5

5 minute read

Recently my fellow HoCo blogger Tom Coale strongly recommended voting against Maryland Question 5, the state ballot question asking voters to approve or reject the U.S. Congressional redistricting measure created by the Democratic party-dominated Maryland state legislature. As noted in a Baltimore Sun story on reaction to the measure, it was designed to ensure that all eight Congressional districts in Maryland have enough Democratic voters to ensure election of Democratic candidates to the U.S. House of Representatives, and in particular to try to keep a Republican candidate from winning Congressional District 5 in Western Maryland.

Tom Coale highlighted the bizarre shapes of the proposed districts, a byproduct of the legislature’s attempt to artificially create safe Democratic seats even if the districts make no sense from the perspective of geography and current political boundaries. A former Congressional staffer quoted by Tom noted that gerrymandering of this sort helps produce political polarization, makes Representatives more remote from their constituents, and in particular harms the interests of Howard County by splitting it between three separate Congressional districts. I’m a registered Democrat myself, but in this post I’ll make the case that the redistricting measure, even though created by Democratic politicians and activists, is actually harmful to the long-term interests of the Democratic party and the people and principles it purports to represent.

But how can this be? Isn’t the goal to elect more Democratic candidates and to defeat “Team Red”? Wasn’t opposition to this redistricting measure led by Republicans, who are responsible for Question 5 being on the ballot in the first place? Yes, that’s right. But just because Republicans oppose the new redistricting measure doesn’t mean that we as Democrats are duty-bound to support it. If the Devil gives you advice you might question his motives, but that doesn’t necessarily make it bad advice; you owe it yourself to think on the subject and come to your own conclusions. So without further ado here’s my take on the case for voting NO on Question 5:

The current redistricting measure will produce Democratic candidates who are more ideologically out of sync with the typical voter, and less likely to appeal to them in the long term. If general elections become uncompetitive due to gerrymandering then the Democratic primaries will determine who gets elected. Since voters in Democratic primaries are more likely to be Democratic party activists and other strongly-partisan Democrats, the Democratic candidates who will be successful will be those who appeal to strong partisans and not necessarily those who appeal to the typical voter. This is sowing the seeds of long-term problems, for a variety of reasons:

  • When elected officials owe their election to a relatively small group of Democratic activists, they prioritize the interests of those people over the interests of Democratic voters in general and the public at large. This can produce policies that appeal to special interests and ideological pressure groups but can be distasteful or even harmful to the rest of the electorate. (See my post on gerrymandering in Howard County Council elections for a more lengthy discussion of this point.)

  • Not all elections can be gerrymandered. Extremely liberal Democratic candidates who are successful in district-based Congressional elections may struggle when trying to compete in statewide elections for governor or the U.S. Senate (or, for that matter, in Presidential elections, should it ever come to that).

  • The Democratic party depends much more than the Republican party on its ability to build a broad coalition of voters who may belong to different ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic groups. Giving a small fraction of Democratic voters the effective power to determine Democratic candidates and policies makes it more difficult to hold that coalition together over time.

The current redistricting measure will make it more difficult to replace mediocre, incompetent, or even corrupt Democratic elected officials with more effective Democratic candidates. The Democratic party doesn’t exist to provide sinecures for Democratic party leaders and activists, it exists to further Democratic party principles. No one, no matter how long their service to the party, has an inalienable right to lifelong employment as an elected official. Gerrymandering that creates safe Democratic seats also makes it more difficult to replace candidates who have passed their “sell-by date” with others who could better represent the party and appeal to a broader base of voters.

In cases where Republicans do get elected, they will be more ideologically polarized and less willing to work with Democratic elected officials to advance initiatives that would help both Democrats and Republicans. This is the flip side of the problem I mentioned above: When Republicans get disproportionately gerrymandered into certain districts in order to improve Democratic chances elsewhere, those districts can end up being the mirror of “safe” Democratic districts, electing Republicans candidates who owe their electoral success in appealing to the most conservative and partisan GOP primary voters. If Democrats ever need the help of such Republicans in advancing bipartisan initiatives they’ll likely find them unwilling to cooperate.

As a result of the effects above, the current redistricting measure will increase voters’ cynicism about government and decrease their willingness to support worthy government initiatives. This serves the long-term interests of the Republican party, which explicitly promotes itself as the opponent of government. However this is absolute poison to the goals of the Democratic party, which seeks to use government as a vehicle to promote the public interest and safeguard the interests of the most vulnerable members of society.

If voters ultimately get fed up with the consequences of partisan gerrymandering, they may adopt measures that are even more destructive of Democratic interests and more difficult to reverse. Draconian term limits for elected officials? Supermajority requirements for raising taxes? The continual use of ballot initiatives to attempt to micro-manage legislators? All consequences of an electorate that thinks politicians are unresponsive to their needs, is looking for any way to correct the problem, and is susceptible to those pushing simple-sounding cures that in many cases end up making the disease worse rather than better. (See California for a good example of this dynamic.)

Finally, rejecting the current redistricting measure may improve the future chances of adopting redistricting schemes that are more non-partisan and could moderate the excesses of partisan gerrymandering. If the redistricting measure is rejected then it will go back to the Maryland state legislature, which will likely make some relatively cosmetic changes and then approve it again. So the short-term impact of rejecting the measure will be relatively minor. However if Question 5 goes down to defeat then at least it will show that there is popular support for an alternative to the present system, and those promoting such alternatives may be able to build on that support to get future measures on the ballot to change the way redistricting is done.

As they say, every journey begins with a single step, and I think rejecting the legislature’s redistricting measure is a useful first step on the journey to a more effective and responsive Democratic party that better serves the interests of all Marylanders. I hope you’ll join me on that journey by voting NO on Question 5.