By now, every Marylander who owns a TV set knows that gambling expansion is on the Election Day ballot. Competing casino interests are spending a combined $34 million on ad blitzes.
Likewise, same-sex marriage is a red-hot ballot question pitting the gay lobby against organized religion. And, now, in the election’s final month, both sides are about to unleash their TV ad barrages.
Another ballot question, the Dream Act (college in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants), has sparked rallies, marches and a spirited public debate.
But what about that other ballot question, the orphan no one is talking about?
Last October, in special session, the state legislature approved Gov. Martin O’Malley’s congressional redistricting map, which rearranges Maryland’s eight congressional district lines in accordance with U.S. Census population shifts.
The U.S. Constitution says that each state must reapportion its congressional boundaries every 10 years so that each district has the same number of residents (i.e., “proportionality”).
But proportionality is the only requirement states must follow. That opens the door to wholesale gerrymandering — redrawing district lines for the sole purpose of protecting the political party in control and eliminating its enemies.
And that’s exactly what O’Malley and the Democratic legislature did last October when they shifted thousands of Montgomery’s Democratic voters into western Maryland’s 6th District to defeat the Republican incumbent, Roscoe Bartlett.
As a result, the new map looks like an explosion in a paint factory. The Washington Post calls it a “ludicrously drawn … mockery of democracy” and a federal judge likened it to a “Rorschach-like eyesore.” Common Cause and the League of Women Voters also oppose it.
But redistricting isn’t sexy like the other ballot questions and doesn’t involve special interests willing to spend millions on TV ads. Politicians care intensely about redistricting, but voters, numb to politics, take a “pox on both your parties” view. The only kind of redistricting normal people care about is when someone starts messing with their child’s school boundaries.
But wait, there’s a glimmer of hope, a murmur of protest from, of all places, wonkish, wussy Montgomery County. Here’s what’s going on:
Every county has a Democratic Central Committee, elected by Democrats, and a Republican Central Committee, elected by Republicans. Their jobs are to organize their respective parties at the grass-roots levels to win elections.
But no one takes this mission more seriously than Montgomery’s Democratic Central Committee. For instance, it’s the only committee that sends out a sample ballot to 240,000 Democratic voters and, this year, that sample ballot has become a political battleground.
You see, Maryland’s voters have never faced four complex, contentious ballot questions before, and the level of voter confusion is expected to be sky-high. So, the Democratic sample ballot’s guidance on the ballot questions may prove all-important, even decisive.
Typical of issue-oriented, process-obsessed Montgomery County, the Democrats established a ballot question study commission that held public hearings, pored over the merits and issued a detailed report. And that’s when the trouble began.
Being ultra-liberals, the commission unanimously supported same-sex marriage and the Dream Act, but recommended against the congressional map, 11-1 (and opposed gambling expansion, 9-4).
Then all hell broke loose. O’Malley, state party leaders, Congressman Steny Hoyer and Montgomery County’s subservient state lawmakers began bombarding Montgomery’s Democratic precinct officials and the central committee with pleas and threats to support the map.
If they didn’t knuckle under, local Democrats wouldn’t be reappointed to state boards and commissions and, if the sample ballot didn’t endorse the map, the state party would withhold its usual $30,000 contribution toward the mailing costs.
But a spirited effort led by Montgomery County Councilman Phil Andrews, a former head of Common Cause, resulted in the sample ballot taking a “no position” on the map, Question 5.
“Don’t cover your eyes, hold your nose and swallow this map,” Andrews implored precinct officials, pointing out that loyal Democrats could have their cake and eat it, too.
If voters reject the map on Election Day, the congressional election results still stand. If John Delaney beats Roscoe Bartlett, Delaney still goes to Congress.
But a defeated map goes back to O’Malley for a makeover and, hopefully, sparks a statewide reform movement taking redistricting away from the politicians and placing it in the hands of an independent, nonpartisan commission, as a growing number of states are doing.
Angry at the sample ballot’s “no-position” on Question 5, and accustomed to pushing around Montgomery County’s notoriously weak-willed lawmakers, O’Malley and state leaders now are withholding the state’s $30,000 sample ballot money.
Aside from being petty and petulant, O’Malley is shortsighted. Maryland’s redistricting process is a corrupt, indefensible conflict of interest. If Maryland’s Democrats refuse to reform it, one day the Republicans will wake up, seize the issue for themselves and become the party of good government by Democratic Party default.
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.