Maryland's multi-member state legislative districts — being discarded by other states — serve to protect incumbents and keep the grip of neoliberal Democrats on the General Assembly, where big money and big business rule the roost and working families get the leavings. Our comrade Rich Elliott here outlines why single-member districts will bring more democracy to Maryland. [editor’s intro]
At a recent Board of Public Works meeting, Comptroller Peter Franchot endorsed the idea of single-member districts for the House of Delegates and computer-generated redistricting. I support these ideas, too.
According to the University of Vermont, multi-member legislative districts have a greater chance of reelecting the incumbents. Only 10 states in the country currently use multi-member districts, with two (Vermont and West Virginia) recently pursuing changes to single-member districts. Only Maryland, West Virginia and New Hampshire allow as many as three representatives per district.
By states’ own volition as well as court decisions, the use of multi-member districts began to decline from nearly half of legislative seats at the dawn of the 1960s to 26% of representatives and 7.5% of senators in 1984. In the 1980s, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, South Carolina and Virginia completely eliminated the use of multi-member districts, and in the 1990s, Alaska, Georgia and Indiana followed suit; Arkansas, North Carolina and Wyoming continued to use multi-member districts through the decade. By 1998, the number of states with these districts had fallen to 13.
Ironically, the current usage of single-member districts and dual-member districts is to protect particular incumbents. It’s very peculiar that Senate President Mike Miller’s District 27, spread across Calvert, Charles and Prince George’s counties, is broken into three single-member districts. Ever wonder why the late House Speaker Mike Busch’s district was arbitrarily cut into one safe Democratic dual-member subdistrict and a Republican subdistrict, all within District 30?
Miller’s district, broken into three parts in completely different counties, could never have an incumbent delegate with the name recognition to beat him. Busch’s district makeup meant that even if insurgent Democrats went after him in the primary, his slate-mate would likely be the one who lost.
Selective single-member districts are just part of the incumbent protection package for leadership.
With Maryland’s multi-member districts, the costs of running a race and the time needed to cover the 125,000-plus population districts are too much for all but the most well-funded insurgent candidates. In many parts of the state, particularly Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, the only way to win is by joining the incumbent slate.
This culture is deeply toxic and anti-democratic, as it forces people to be subordinates rather than independent legislators. Single-member districts would have 35,000 or fewer residents, allowing individual legislators to develop deeper relationships with their constituents and have a better grasp of their legislative needs.
Door-knocking campaigns would be significantly more effective. At present, many districts have two or three legislators who are all from the same neighborhood. With single-member districts, we’d need Democrats from many more communities in Maryland.
If former House Judiciary chairman Joe Vallario (D-Prince George’s) or current Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis (D-Prince George’s) were in single-member districts, activists, unions and advocacy organizations could target them. Under the multi-member district system, these slate-masters are protected, as their slate-mates are the ones who would lose the election instead.
For instance, an attempt to oust House Judiciary Chairman Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore City) would threaten his district-mate, Del. Robbyn Lewis (D). The current slate setup also allows incumbent senators to win re-election by relying solely on the delegate slate.
Reducing the cost of elections, the number of voters needed to win, and forcing every candidate to campaign on their own will yield great dividends for democracy and public accountability for politicians in this state.
Gerrymandering is done throughout Maryland to protect incumbents as well, at both the federal and state level. Maryland’s 6th District was drawn for former state Sen. Rob Garagiola, who lost in the 2012 Democratic primary to now-presidential candidate John Delaney. District 4 was redistricted to remove wealthy black neighborhoods from Rep. Donna Edwards’ district and put them in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s district.
In the legislature, District 47 was originally drawn in 2002 specifically for former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker (D), prior to his first run for county executive. District 34A was crafted following Mary Ann Lisanti’s policies as Havre de Grace City Manager, which have maintained racial segregation in Harford County. In District 23A, incumbent Geraldine Valentino-Smith was able to narrowly win reelection against grassroots progressive Shabnam Ahmed in her racially gerrymandered district.
This gerrymandering frequently cuts up communities into having different representatives, weakening their ability to unite in opposition against individual representatives.
While single-member districts and computer-generated redistricting would likely break the Democratic supermajority in the House of Delegates, it would also force the Maryland Democratic Party to become a serious statewide force in the general election.
Subdistricts such as the Arbutus/Halethorpe section of District 12, Linthicum/Glen Burnie in District 32, the northwestern Baltimore City base of Yitzy Schleifer and Dalya Attar, an Olney/Ferndale in District 19, and the Fells Point and Canton waterfront of Baltimore City could be pickups for the Maryland Republican Party. But we could also gain Democratic delegates from Cambridge, Salisbury, Hagerstown and in other forgotten parts of the state where energized volunteers, small dollar donations and a strong social media campaign can oust a sleepy incumbent.
Single-member districts would allow unions and advocacy organizations to target corporate Democrats and would make it easier to elect grass-roots candidates. Finally, they would force “safe” Democratic and Republican incumbents to engage their voters or risk being ousted. This would be a positive step for increased democratization of Maryland and the elimination of the current machine culture within both the Democratic and Republican parties.
For all these reasons, I strongly support single-member districts and computer-generated redistricting as electoral reforms in Maryland.
Richard Deshay Elliott is a political science Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University, a public policy researcher with Del. Vaughn Stewart (D-Montgomery), an MDC DSA member and an activist with Progressive Maryland. This well-traveled op-ed was first published in Maryland Matters July 22, reposted in Maryland Reporter and published in the Progressive Maryland BlogSpace July 23.