Myopia and single-member legislative districts -- Gazette.Net


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Some Montgomery County residents have the desire to forge a majority-Hispanic state legislative subdistrict, 18B, in the area around Wheaton and Aspen Hill. The subdistrict, which would have one state delegate and would share a senator, would have a 51 percent Hispanic majority.

The plan would mirror what took place with this year’s new legislative districts’ map, which carved out a minority subdistrict, 47B, in a northwestern piece of Prince George’s County that includes Hyattsville, Adelphi and Langley Park. The new districts’ map was automatically adopted in February and is in place for the 2014 election.

There is no denying that a single-member subdistrict in an area with a growing Hispanic population would virtually guarantee the election of a Hispanic representative. There are some obvious advantages to that. The representative likely would understand the needs and interests of the community without a potentially long learning curve. The representative very well could have a leg up in identifying with the language and culture(s) of his or her constituents. The representative might even be privy to more honest interaction with constituents because of familiarity.

In fact, the push toward single-member districts was a consequence of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned racial discrimination in the electoral process.

However, make no mistake, there’s a clear downside to single-member districts as well. The most egregious negative is that between 30 percent and 40 percent of single-member seats nationwide are uncontested in general elections, according to the Takoma Park-based nonprofit organization FairVote.org.

One probably can make a good case that this virtual fiefdom for an elected leader increases the likelihood of corruption. It undoubtedly emboldens the politician who doesn’t have to worry about re-election, or even answering to the electorate.

The last thing we need nowadays are more reasons to be down on politicians and the “system.”

[For the record, FairVote favors a “choice voting” system in which voters get to rank the candidates in a race — as many as they wish to. The belief is that the three legislators elected from a typical district would better reflect the choices of all voters.]

Other disadvantages to a single-member district are that they can actually stymie the election of more women and minorities, because multi-member districts increase the likelihood of turnover for seats. Also, with single-member seats, legislators can take too narrow a view of their responsibility, seeing everything through the eyes of their district’s needs rather than the general good.

And, as Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Dist. 24) of Mitchellville told The Gazette, a minority district doesn’t ensure a minority representative — nor should it, in her opinion.

“It’s not the race of the individual that’s important, it’s making sure the needs of the population are represented,” Braveboy said.