Wednesday, October 26, 2011


“Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a Line, in particular a Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt, through the midst of a People,-- to create thus a Distinction betwixt 'em,-- 'tis the first stroke.-- All else will follow as if predestin'd, unto War and Devastation."
--- Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon
The above quote was my opening salvo in a draft blog post full of righteous indignation at the proposed Maryland redistricting plan that bisected the Cape. Like most Capers, I was outraged at the notion that our tight-knit community would be split down the middle into two separate congressional districts. What kind of gerrymandering insanity would divide the interests of a well-defined, cohesive locality, leaving half of us within a strange part waterfront, part Baltimore beltway, part Howard and Montgomery County constituency while lumping the other half into a chunk of Anne Arundel bizarrely attached by a land bridge to the belle of the beltway, Prince Georges County? Really?

OK, it's not like Hampton Drive would have become the Mason-Dixon line or the Berlin Wall. It would not have been a line dividing one lifestyle or set of beliefs from another. No physical barrier would prevent movement from one side to the other. It was not drawn to banish, ostracize or otherwise relegate one group of people or ideology from another. The line was simply drawn in the interest of political expediency as a way to balance out numbers of voters to the best advantage of the majority political party.

Capers responded with justifiable concern, passionately expressing their dismay on the public comments page of the Maryland redistricting website. In addition, the CSC Improvement Association prepared and submitted a thoughtful and persuasive letter to the Governor's Advisory Committee, the text of which follows:
On behalf of the 7,500 residents of Cape St. Claire, I am writing to vehemently oppose the Committee’s new congressional redistricting proposal. Cape St. Claire is a waterfront community located on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay comprised of more than 2,300 single family homes. The community is bounded on three sides by bodies of water: the Little Magothy River, the Chesapeake Bay, the Magothy River, and Deep Creek. Indeed, our connection to the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries is fundamental to our community identity, and has been since Cape St. Claire was founded in 1949.  
For the past 20 years, Cape St. Claire has been part of the 1st Congressional District, as were most of the Chesapeake Bay waterfront communities in Maryland. The new proposal arbitrarily divides our tight-knit community into two separate districts -- with one precinct in District 3, and the other two precincts in District 4. While because of our size we vote in three precincts, the community participates in elections as a whole: we have Candidate Forums in which all residents participate; we routinely host our Congressional Representatives at community meetings; and while we may have thousands of residents, we act very much like a small neighborhood.  
Splitting our community into two districts will confuse and disenfranchise our residents. An arbitrary line will have been drawn through the heart of our community which will create an abomination where one resident can't have a conversation with his or her neighbor about their common representative--that surely cannot be a responsible way to encourage participation in our great democracy. In the words of one of our residents (who serves as a poll judge on election days), "splitting Cape St. Claire will be logistical hell come polling day."  
We are equally astounded to read that some believe that we have more in common with Prince George’s County than with our Chesapeake Bay waterfront neighbors. And since the community is split in half, does this mean one half of our community identifies with Annapolis (District 3) while the other half has more in common with Landover and Greenbelt in District 4? Cleary, our interests are not being represented in this proposal.  
We understand that a line has to be drawn somewhere. But, to split a community in half--one that is only a square mile in size is ridiculous. To add insult to injury, putting one half of that community in a district that runs right up to the District of Columbia line demeans and dismisses the 62-year history of our community's ties to the Annapolis area. We respectfully request that Cape St. Claire, in its entirety, be placed within District 3 with the rest of the Annapolis area and other central Maryland waterfront communities with which we share so much in common.
Lo and behold, when the governor submitted his finalized plan to the General Assembly, the Cape was intact once again! Somebody was actually listening on the other end of the line. The whole of our community was redrawn into District 3 - the tortured light green district on the map below - contiguous only by boat at the mouth of the Magothy River and by a thread east of Baltimore City. Taken as a whole, it looks like a duck pointing at western Maryland. The light blue-green District 4 shaped like monster arms is where half of us were almost relegated.

While our voices were thankfully and refreshingly heard on this particular occasion, I still am not at all comfortable with the process. Had it not fit conveniently in the Democrat's overall redistricting scheme, I doubt the change would have been made. The redistricting that occurs every ten years following a census is not a pretty business. It necessitates the drawing of lines to divide states up into contiguous districts that contain roughly equal numbers of people ostensibly ensuring "one person, one vote" per Supreme Court guidelines.

The kicker is that state legislatures, in our case the Maryland General Assembly, are generally responsible for Congressional redistricting. In other words, the state's majority political party has control of the process and can pick and choose where they want to slide district lines to the best advantage of their party. It's done with equal ruthlessness by both parties and has a major impact on the outcomes of elections.

In recent history, the political parties have become increasingly overt in their attempts to create districts that promise the best results on election day. No contortion of a state map into district boundaries is too extreme. While redistricting with any kind of racial bias is not permitted by the Constitution, there is nothing prohibiting partisan-based motives. Here is a nice example from Illinois:

Illinois district contiguous only by
virtue of the highway to the left.

and another interesting district courtesy of the infamous 2003 redistricting of Texas:

Some of Tom DeLay and Rick Perry's handiwork splitting
heavily Dem. Travis County into three solidly Rep. districts.

Neither of the major political parties is above exploiting this conflict of interest. The primary goal of this latest round of redistricting in Maryland was to pick up a seat for the Democrats in the next election by increasing the vulnerability of 10-term western Maryland representative Roscoe Bartlett (maybe that's who the District 3 duck is pointing at). The system seems fundamentally flawed when a party in power can dramatically impact the outcome of congressional elections - the politicians picking the voters instead of the voters choosing their representatives. And since the party in power likes it that way, they have no incentive to change the system.

It makes my skin crawl, like so much of politics these days. While gerrymandering is nothing new and many would argue a necessary "part of the game", it seems to have taken on a whole new level of unfairness in recent decades. The country has been carved up into increasingly polarized constituencies as our system of government continues to be warped and manipulated in favor of those in power or with monetary influence.

For any of you who would like to have a go at this dirty business yourselves, I came across an online redistricting game. It's actually a pretty fun learning tool - a little slow to load at first, but worth your patience. If you have kids and would like to demonstrate the complexities and partiality of drawing congressional lines or just want to better understand it yourself, this is a great way to do it. You can play the role of party heads named Libby Rahl or Conner Servative and shift the district lines in several imaginary states until the number of constituents is correct while simultaneously pleasing or angering animated representatives. Some of the representatives' names include Tyree Hugger, Manny Pulative, and Celia Coen-Valley. Entertaining and educational at the same time!

For the next ten years at least, Capers can rest easily knowing that our interests still lie together on the congressional map. Neighbors across the street from one another on Hampton Drive will still be represented by the same Member of Congress. Next time around, who knows where they will put us or how they will divide us. The only thing that is certain about the redistricting process is that they will in fact divide us - with a "Right Line, the very Shape of Contempt".

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