Single-member districts offer mixed bag for minorities -- Gazette.Net


This story was corrected on July 16, 2012. An explanation follows the story.

When Maryland’s new legislative map qauietly took effect earlier this year, it created a new minority subdistrict in northwestern Prince George’s County.

District 47B, which includes areas of Hyattsville, Langley Park and Adelphi, is designed to support the election of a Hispanic lawmaker to represent its majority-Hispanic population.

The district will be represented by a single delegate and will share a senator with the renamed District 47A.

Despite calls to put a similar district a few miles away in the Wheaton area of Montgomery County, it wasn’t included in the final legislative map, a move advocates say is a missed opportunity.

“There’s very little chance for a Latino to get elected districtwide,” said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase, who advocated the creation of the Hispanic subdistrict in Montgomery. But a single-member subdistrict would raise those chances, if not immediately then as the population continues to grow, she said.

Gutierrez, who said her own election was an anomaly, proposed creating a subdistrict, 18B, that would incorporate portions of Wheaton and Aspen Hill and have a 51 percent Hispanic majority.

The need for a subdistrict in Montgomery County is more urgent than in District 47, which already has been successful in electing Hispanic Sen. Victor Ramirez (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly, Gutierrez said.

Ramirez, who was elected to the Senate in 2010 after serving two terms in the House of Delegates, agreed there might not have been a direct need for a subdistrict in 47, but he said the new, single-member district would help ensure the Hispanic community was represented in the future.

The Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee recommended the creation of 47B, which is more than 63 percent Hispanic, in December but cautioned a subdistrict in Montgomery County still could have trouble electing a Hispanic representative.

Furthermore, the remainder of the district would be 68 percent white, which would be disproportionate, according to the committee. Montgomery County’s population is 63 percent white, according to census data.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) submitted the final map without the Montgomery subdistrict.

Legislative leaders praised the new districts and did not allow changes. The map was automatically adopted in February, and the changes will be used in the 2014 election. A map voters might have a chance to overturn in November applies only to Maryland’s congressional districts.

Creating such subdistricts can give political strength to communities that share common interests, such as minority populations, said Kim Propeack, political director for the immigrant activist organization Casa of Maryland, which supported the creation of both Hispanic districts. Subdistricts have been applied all around the state and have helped elect black delegates in districts such as 23B and 37A, she said.

The new 47B might give residents a stronger voice in development issues — particularly related to the planned Purple Line light-rail system that will pass through Langley Park — by ensuring their representative lives in the area, Propeack said.

But some say creating more single-member districts can potentially diminish voter representation in the long run by making a single legislator difficult to unseat.

Nationwide, between 30 percent and 40 percent of single-member seats are uncontested in general elections, said Rob Richie, director of the Takoma Park-based nonprofit

“Having no choice at all is pretty depressing,” Richie said.

Multiseat districts increase the chance of turnover among legislators, and can promote the election of more women and minorities, he said.

Ramirez acknowledged the potential drawback of having just one delegate rather than three.

“There’s power in numbers,” he said.

Single-member districts can be seen as parochial, with lawmakers concerned only with the needs of a small group, said Donald Norris, chair of the Department of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

On the other hand, at-large districts make lawmakers accountable to the entire population, but make minority representation harder to come by, he said.

Partisan concerns also come into play.

If single-member districts were implemented throughout Maryland, Republicans likely would have greater representation in the House, Norris said. And redistricting processes have sought to protect incumbents since the country was founded, Norris added.

The movement toward single-member districts is a result of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which banned racial discrimination in the electoral process, Richie said. But states should support systems that increase minority voting power without creating minority-majority districts.

Richie advocates a system known as choice voting. Instead of winner-take-all elections, where voters give one vote each to three candidates, as is done in three-member districts in Maryland, voters should instead rank candidates as their first, second and third choices, he said.

And it’s important to remeber that minority representation doesn't always mean electing a minority lawmaker, said Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Dist 24) of Mitchellville. Majority-minority districts still might elect lawmakers of other races.

“It’s not the race of the individual that’s important, it’s making sure the needs of the population are represented,” she said.

Braveboy, who is black, criticized the new legislative map for not creating enough majority-black districts. African-Americans represent nearly a third of Maryland’s population, and the new map included 12 majority-black districts when 14 could have been drawn, she said.

This story had a wrong location for the new minority subdistrict in Prince George’s County.