Last weekís big election news was Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walkerís recall victory, the first governor in American history to survive a recall. But history was also made last Tuesday in Californiaís primary elections, that stateís first under two new voter-imposed election reforms that Maryland ought to emulate.
No more gerrymandering
Modern day gerrymandering — incumbents designing their own election districts to guarantee safe re-election — is the unintended consequence of an early 1960s election reform.
The U.S. Constitution establishes two legislative chambers: the Senate, which consists of two senators from each state regardless of each stateís population; and the House, whose seats are apportioned based strictly on each stateís population (except each state must have at least one seat).
Thatís why the Constitution requires a national census every 10 years, to reapportion congressional seats between the states in accordance with population shifts. But before 1962, such Constitutional requirements did not apply to state and local legislatures which, in many cases, were growing wildly disproportionate.
For instance, the Tennessee Legislature hadnít redrawn election districts since 1901, so some counties had the same number of state lawmakers as other counties with populations 20 times smaller.
The same was true in Maryland, where each county had a single state senator regardless of population. As a result, Marylandís nine tiny Eastern Shore counties dominated the legislature.
But all this ended in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Baker v. Carr, the case that Chief Justice Earl Warren called the most important of his career. Before 1962, the court said that whether or not voters have equal representation in state and local legislatures was none of the federal courtís business because only Congress, not the states, was required by the Constitution to have equal representation.
But the Supreme Court reversed itself in Baker v. Carr by holding that disproportionate state and local election districts violated the 14th Amendmentís equal protection clause. This landmark ďone man, one voteĒ case, and others that flowed from it, turned the nationís political landscape upside down by basing the representation in every state and local legislature strictly on population as determined by the decennial U.S. census.
Suddenly, Marylandís population centers in Baltimore and suburban Washington, D.C., were electing scores of new lawmakers to Annapolis, while rural Marylandís representation was reduced by more than half.
Yes, requiring Marylandís 47 State House election districts as well as the stateís 24 county legislatures to be rebalanced every 10 years according to census changes was a great victory for equality. Except, the rebalancing was left in the hands of the incumbents — a flagrant conflict of interest.
So now, every decade the incumbents get to redraw election districts using computers linked to voting histories to arrange voters into combinations that guarantee victory for themselves and defeat for their opponents. Yet, as long as such gerrymandered districts comply with Baker v. Carr — are equal in population — itís perfectly legal.
In 2010, Californiaís voters put an end to this by transferring the redistricting power from the legislature to a nonpartisan citizens commission. So, last Tuesday was Californiaís first gerrymander-free election, with many more competitive districts where candidates must now appeal to a broader spectrum of voters and where incumbents no longer enjoy ďsafe districts.Ē
No more closed primaries
Primary elections, like Baker v. Carr, were a good government reform that also produced unintended consequences. Sick of candidates nominated by bosses and by rigged conventions, early 20th century reformers passed laws requiring that party nominees be elected by primary elections.
But closed primaries (only registered party members can participate) raise another set of problems.
An electorate of like-minded party members voting in a lightly attended primary election tends to elect candidates well to the left, or right, of the political mainstream. Thatís because each partyís special-interest groups (labor, gays, environmentalists, minorities for Democrats, business, evangelicals, gun groups for the GOP) have magnified political clout in a closed primary.
So, thanks to primaries, my choices in November are limited to candidates produced by the two partiesí caucuses. And in a one-party state like Maryland, where the Democratic primary is the de facto election, my choice already has been made for me.
California voters traded in their closed primaries for a ďtop twoĒ primary that works like this: All candidates for an office run against each other, regardless of party affiliation, in a primary open to all voters, even independents. Itís essentially a general election semifinal.
Then, the primary electionís top two finalists, regardless of party, oppose each other in the general election. Letting all the voters pick the general electionís nominees may diminish political party power, but it also produces more centrist candidates and less legislative polarization.
A good test of whether Marylandís closed primaries and gerrymandered districts is giving us lawmakers well to the left of Marylandís political mainstream is Novemberís ballot questions on gay marriage and the Dream Act (in-state tuition rates for illegal aliens). In a way, these issues and Marylandís entire election system are going to referendum together.
A lot of wacky ideas come out of California, but sometimes even a blind pig finds an acorn, or two.
Blair Lee is CEO of the Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in The Gazette. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.