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Ballot Measures - Lazy Legislation or True Democracy? Part I: Maryland Gerrymanders and other issues

Northern Virginia is part of a battleground state in 2012, so it may not be a surprise that television viewers and visitors to local media websites in the Washington, DC region have seen advertisement after advertisement about the Presidential election. The surprise is that equal attention seems to exist for Maryland ballot questions.

All of the local attention on ballot questions and the misinformation and lack of information on the questions inspired me to write about whether ballot measures are generally a good idea and whether these Maryland ballot questions initiatives work.  To get to that (and respond to requests for explanations of the measures) I'll do this in two parts.  First, I'll explain the questions and put them in context, and then I'll talk about the concept more generally.  In this post, I'll cover Maryland Ballot Questions 1-6. In the next post, I will discuss Question 7 and the lessons learned.

Question 5 - Maryland's Proposed Congressional Districts. Images from Maryland Department of Planning Website

Quick analysis of Maryland Ballot Questions (click here for the full text of questions):

Questions 1 and 2: Orphans Court. Constitutional amendments that would require that Orphan's Court judges be required to be members of the Maryland Bar and be admitted to practice law in the state.  This would add to the current list of qualifications for the office.

Question 3: Suspension and Removal of Public Officials.  A constitutional amendment that is needed to close the loophole that allowed convicted felon Leslie Johnson to continue serving on the Prince George's County Council after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit witness and evidence tampering for hiding $79,600 in her underwear amongst other crimes. The rest of the council barred her from sitting on committees and from making development decisions on her district (the policy area that led to her and her husband's bribery arrests) but she continued to serve for months.  She was arrested in November 2010, pleaded guilty in June 2011 and stated her intention to continue to serve (and receive pay) until her sentencing in October. Eventually she resigned at the end of July after the Council stripped her of her staff, cellphone and county car. This amendment would lead to an automatic suspension without pay if an elected official is found guilty and removal from office if there is no successful appeal. (There would be immediate removal if there is a guilty plea.)

Question 4: Referendum Tuition Rates in Higher Education. The Maryland "Dream Act" would allow a person, regardless of residency status, to pay in-state tuition at Maryland community colleges if they meet certain requirements, including attending high school in Maryland, paying local taxes, application for permanent residency, etc. The act would also set forth a process for determining in-county rates at a community college for that person and a process that would allow the student to pay in-state tuition at a four-year college or university.

Notably, the ballot language specifically mentions that it would cover undocumented immigrants and summarizes each element of the act in greater detail than I have done here. The 100+ word description in the ballot question will allow an uninformed voter to understand what this bill does and decide on their vote, unlike the following question.
Maryland's 3rd District under the 2011 plan

Question 5: Redistricting.  The 23-word description on the ballot does not make it clear that this question is a rare chance for voters to note their approval or lack of approval for a state redistricting plan. The current 2011 Congressional redistricting plan for Maryland demonstrates the ability of modern legislators to create very carefully gerrymandered districts, but Maryland voters have an opportunity to vote that state legislators redraw the map that created a 3rd district that includes northern Silver Spring, parts of Baltimore City, Annapolis, and Towson, but very little in between.  If one needed to define "gerrymandering" to a person who didn't understand the American political system, this is the perfect visual aid.  This map also creates a 4th district which combines heavily populated majority African American portions of Prince Georges County that border Washington, DC with portions of Anne Arundel County near the Chesapeake Bay.  Anne Arundel County has about 540,000 residents, but is part of four separate Congressional districts, including the two that I have mentioned.

Maryland is a place where county distinctions matter - most counties have their own identities with racial/ethnic compositions, political leanings, industrial mixes and other cultural differences that can vary. One lesson that I learned during drives around the state as a Maryland Governor's fellow was that Maryland counties are parts of the home markets for four NFL teams - Baltimore, Washington, Pittsburgh and even Philadelphia all have claims to part of the state, and each of those areas feel as different as those team's fan bases would lead one to believe.  Decades ago, after a National Geographic article, Maryland promoted itself as "America in Miniature" because of the vast geographic differences in the state - from mountains to woodlands to wetlands to farmland to ocean. Maryland also has rural areas, small towns, suburbs and urban areas - each of these parts of the state have different characters.

Today, Maryland has great racial and ethnic diversity as well. These district maps reflect very little of that. Instead, Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County are each split into parts of four districts, and Montgomery and Howard counties are each split into parts of three. Since these districts are not developed to respect natural, political, cultural, traditional boundaries, they split counties, cities, communities and even neighborhoods. They have one justification: by splitting the heavily populated, majority Democratic Washington-Baltimore Corridor into as many districts as possible, Maryland Democrats hope to add another Democratic seat to Congress.  As a result, residents in places such as Severn (population 44,000) can find themselves in a different district than their neighbors - three different congressional districts sliver through through that area.

It must be difficult for one Congressperson to adequately represent the interests of people who live in completely different parts of the state, but it seems unlikely that enough voters are paying attention to this question to realize that it is an option to vote against it.  The ballot question is worded as follows: "Establishes the boundaries for the State’s eight United States Congressional Districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution."  This innocuous wording makes it unlikely that uninformed voters would vote against it.  If the plan is voted down, the legislature would return with a new redistricting plan. Most likely, it would look similar to the existing plan, and no matter the result, the new districts would remain in force throughout the two-year term of the next Congress.  In this way, even committed Democrats who want to support their party's chances next week could vote against the redistricting plan without harming their chosen candidate. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this plan is constitutional at the national level, but Maryland voters have an opportunity to register their opinion on the blatantly political redistricting.

I have heard from several Maryland Democratic voters who shared their belief that redistricting is a political process, and that Democrats in the legislature need to do what majority Republican legislatures have done in other states to stay even on the national scale.  Predictably, many Republicans are in favor of repeal, a sentiment that is shared with some residents in the areas that have been split up and distributed amongst the varying districts. Unfortunately, most have not thought about the policy at all. A few editorial boards and newspapers are urging votes against the plan including the Washington Post and others. Several other states have redistricting commissions or other alternative means of creating legislative districts.  One of the newest is California's Citizens Redistricting Commission.  Unfortunately, the wording of this question makes it doubtful that most voters will even realize what choice they  have.

Question 6: Civil Marriage. This bill would establish that a civil marriage in Maryland includes gay and lesbian couples and protects religious institutions, clergy and affiliated organization from performing marriages or providing services that would violate their religious principles.  It is another ballot question on a widely discussed issue, and the description accurately describes the act's content.  This issue has been debated for years - the policy compromise in this version is an attempt to expand  marriage and protect organized religion.

There are several issues here that would have (or did) get a great deal of attention in previous years. I find Question 5 to be most important to describe here, as the vague description of the issue in the text of the ballot question is the least informative and likely to be the most misleading of the entire set. This year, the hottest issue is Question 7. Check back tomorrow for a breakdown of Question 7 and the general lessons from Maryland's ballot measures.

Do you have thoughts on any of these ballot measures?  Do you have an issue with the redistricting strategy in Maryland? Comments are welcome below and on twitter and facebook.


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