Western Maryland, The 51st State? Don’t Laugh Yet

Originally published in the JHU Politik on September 29th, 2013.

49-year-old Carroll County resident, Scott Strzelczyk, is leading a grassroots movement to secede from the state of Maryland. Dubbed “The Western Maryland Initiative,” individuals in the five western counties of Garret, Allegany, Washington, Frederick and Carroll, are working to rally political support for what is certain to be an unattainable goal.

Demographically, the five counties are populated with more than 653,000 people, greater than both the populations of Vermont and Wyoming. And geographically, the western Maryland region is larger than both Rhode Island and Delaware. Consequently, Strzelczyk insists that his plan is not wholly unrealistic and that secession would not be from the Union itself, but from the “oppressive and abusive treatment from Annapolis.”

Unsurprisingly, Western Maryland’s push for secession has been met largely with ridicule. One writer in The Baltimore Sun suggested that “a simpler solution for everyone involved” would be for the aggrieved to just move across the state line to West Virginia. Another Sun writer pointed out that western Maryland counties contain about 11 percent of the state’s population, yet account for only 10 percent of Maryland’s tax base and receive more than 13 percent of Maryland’s total unemployment benefits. It’s clear that secession would entail major, likely untenable, economic consequences.

Across the country, several other secession movements have cropped up in upstate New York, the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, Northern California and various northern Colorado counties. These radical movements consist of primarily white, conservative voters, living in predominantly rural regions. Their outrage stems largely from legislation around gun control, energy use and increased taxes.

The Western Maryland Initiative shares some characteristics with these other secession movements, but it is distinct in its primary grievance: gerrymandering, the process of deliberate redistricting in order to influence an election’s outcome.

Gerrymandering is one of those terms we are taught in high school government class. Perhaps we shrug when we hear it today and say, “well yeah it’s bad, but everyone does it.”

It’s certainly true both parties are guilty of redistricting. However, Maryland’s record is particularly disappointing. An independent geospatial analysis firm ranked Maryland as the most gerrymandered state in the entire country. Take a look at a map of the 2012 congressional voting districts for yourself. There are reasons whyThe Washington Post described District 3 as resembling “blood spatter from a crime scene.”

Federal law dictates that legislators use new Census data to redraw congressional districts every ten years. However, when the Maryland legislators proposed their newly drawn districts, Common Cause of Maryland, the League of Women Voters, civil rights groups, and a supermajority of the Montgomery County Council met them with outrage. In response, Republicans managed to place “Question 5,” a redistricting repeal referendum, on the 2012 ballot. But redistricting never stood a chance of eliciting the type of political attention that some of the other Maryland referendum items could, like marriage equality and the Dream Act. Ultimately redistricting passed with a pretty high margin, even though many on both sides agreed that it went too far.

I sympathize with these alienated conservative voters. Particularly as liberals and Democrats rally against the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and as they band together to fight duplicitous voter identification laws, I find their silence on this matter suspicious at best.

Some will say Maryland’s redistricting is just “tit for tat.” Republicans are gerrymandering Texas! Look at North Carolina! Democrats have no choice but to play dirty.

But this is false. Gerrymandering is just another form of disenfranchisement. It’s a political maneuver to make some votes count more than others, and some to not count at all. If liberals are going to be up in arms about voter suppression legislation, (which we should be) then we should also be concerned and sympathetic to the deep frustrations voters feel in Western Maryland due to gerrymandering. Mocking these feelings is cruel and antidemocratic.

Maryland redistricting should model states like Arizona that have created an Independent Redistricting Commission, responsible for drawing new district boundaries independently of their state legislature.

Who knows how long Scott Strzelczyk’s campaign will last, though don’t expect to see a 51st state anytime soon. But in the meantime, at the very least, hold off with the snark.