Sunday, July 7, 2019

Single-Member Districts: Why I Support Them

Note: This is a Guest Op-Ed, penned by Richard DeShay Elliott.  The opinions expressed are his own. Enjoy!

Single-Member Districts: Why I Support Them

            At a recent Board of Public Works meeting, Comptroller Peter Franchot endorsed the idea of single-member districts (SMDs) and computer-generated redistricting. I support these ideas, too. According to the University of Vermont, multi-member districts (MMDs) have a greater chance of re-electing the incumbents. Only 10 states in the country currently use multi-member districts, with 2 (Vermont and West Virginia) recently pursuing changes to single-member districts. Only Maryland, West Virginia, & New Hampshire allow as many as 3 representatives per district.

By states' own volition as well as court decisions, MMDs' usage began to decline from nearly half of legislative seats at the turn 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 MMDs and in the 1990s, Alaska, Georgia, and Indiana followed suit; Arkansas, North Carolina and Wyoming continued to use MMDs through the decade. By 1998, the number of states with MMDs had fallen to 13.

            Ironically, the current usage of SMDs 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, & Prince George’s County, is broken into 3 single-member districts. Ever wonder why Mike Busch’s district was arbitrarily cut into one safe Democratic dual-member subdistrict and a Republican subdistrict, all within D30? Miller’s district, broken into 3 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 slatemate would likely be the one who lost. Selective single-member districts is 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+ population districts is too much for all but the most well-funded insurgent candidates. In many parts of the state, particularly Prince George’s County & Montgomery County, 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 less residents, allowing individual legislators to develop deeper relationships with their constituents and have a better grasp of their legislative needs. Doorknocking campaigns would be significantly more effective. At present, many districts have 2 or 3 legislators who are all from the community. With SMDs, we’d need Democrats from many more communities in Maryland.

If former Judicial Proceedings Chair Joe Vallario (D23B) or current Economic Matters Chairman Dereck Davis (D25) were in single-member districts, activists, unions, and advocacy organizations could target them. Under the multi-member district system, these slatemasters are protected, as their slatemates are the ones who would lose the election instead. For instance, an attempt to oust Judicial Proceedings Chair Luke Clippinger (D46) would threaten Robbyn Lewis. 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 Senator 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 Donna Edward’s district and put them in Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s district. District 47 was originally drawn in 2002 specifically for former Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker, 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 racial 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 gerrymandering 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/Glenn Burnie in District 32, the northwestern Baltimore base of Yitzy Schleifer & Dalya Attar, Olney/Ferndale in District 19, & the Fells Point & Canton waterfront of Baltimore 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, & 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 grassroots candidates. Finally, it would force “safe” Democrats 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. I strongly support single-member districts & 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 Delegate Vaughn Stewart, and campaign strategist with Tim Adams for Mayor of Bowie. You can find him on Twitter at @RichElliottMD and on Facebook.

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