Eberly Commentary: Western Md. secession movement is a symptom of a serious disease

Professor Todd Eberly of St. Mary's College of Maryland.

Professor Todd Eberly of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

By Todd Eberly

For MarylandReporter.com

A small group of Western Marylanders are pursuing a quixotic secessionist movement that would see the state’s four western counties break away and form a new state. Led by Scott Strzelczyk, the secessionists argue Maryland is controlled by a single party and by folks elected from three jurisdictions — Baltimore City, Montgomery County, and Prince Georges County. Everyone else, they say, is being ignored.

Given that western Maryland is overwhelmingly white and rural, some have been quick to dismiss the secessionist movement as a race-based action motivated by white voters fearful of growing diversity in the state. Though such arguments may hold a kernel of truth, they obscure the more fundamental cause for these movements in Maryland and elsewhere. These intra-state movements are driven by a complex mix of issues that go to the very heart of a representative democracy.

Secede T-shirt

By niseag03 on Flickr

It’s important to understand that what’s happening in Western Maryland is not unique to the region or to Maryland.  For decades there has been a secessionist movement on the Eastern Shore. The movement’s strength ebbs and flows much like the tides that surround the region.

Proposals for a new state date back to the 1830s. In 1998, legislation was introduced that would have put the question of Eastern Shore secession on the ballot. Eastern Shore secessionists argue the region is not well represented in Annapolis, that tax dollars generated by tourists are not appropriately reinvested in the area, and that transportation monies are consistently directed elsewhere.

In Colorado multiple rural counties have pursued secession in an effort to create one or more new states. Movement organizers, including elected officials from the secessionist counties, argue their interests are not being represented in a state legislature dominated by officials from more suburban and urban counties. Recent gun control legislation as well as new renewable energy standards placed on electric cooperatives (common in rural areas) have bolstered the movement.

Liberals elsewhere have sought secession as well 

Lest you think the secession movements are all the result of disgruntled conservatives, understand that disgruntled liberals are looking to secession as well. As recently as 2008 and again in 2012 Democratic officials in southern Florida sought to separate from the Republican rest of the state. And liberals in southern Arizona, frustrated by Republican dominance in the state capital, have pursued secession as well.

And these are just a selection of the intra-state secession movements active in the U.S. today. It’s important to understand that intra-state secession movements are quite different from the secession movements seeking to separate from the United States altogether. Intra-state secessionist are not disillusioned with the United States, rather they are frustrated by a political system that they believe to be ignoring them – and the reality is, they probably are being ignored.

Intra-state secessionist are not disillusioned with the United States, rather they are frustrated by a political system that they believe to be ignoring them – and the reality is, they probably are being ignored.

Given the deep divide between elected Democrats and Republicans, being a political minority in a state or legislative district likely means being marginalized. In truly competitive states and legislative districts, elected officials cannot afford to alienate voters not in their party. In such states and districts, fellow partisans lack sufficient numbers to ensure victory.

Conservatives more conservative, liberals more liberal

As the parties have polarized and Democrats have become more consistently liberal and Republicans more consistently conservative some states that were once competitive no longer are. Maryland is a good example.

Though Maryland has been dominated by Democrats since Reconstruction, Republicans were once more successful in the state. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush carried Maryland in 1984 and 1988. Mac Mathias represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 18 years until 1987.

But the parties were not as polarized then. There were plenty of moderate Democrats and Republicans and substantial bipartisan cooperation. In such an environment, conservative leaning voters are more comfortable voting for Democrats and liberal leaning voters are more comfortable voting for Republicans. In such an environment, competitive states and districts are more likely.

In the present era, however, voting Republican only makes sense if you have a preference for conservatism over liberalism – even if it’s a slight preference. Voting Democrat only makes sense if you have a preference for liberalism over conservatism – even if it’s slight. As a result, once competitive states have become less competitive.

Growing number of landslide states and districts

The number of landslide states has grown (states where one party typically wins the presidential vote by at least 10 points). It’s important to understand this can happen even if the voters themselves have not become more liberal or conservatives — more polarized. It’s not that voters polarized, it’s that the parties and therefor candidates polarized. In an election between two polarized candidates, a non-polarized electorate can make polarized choices.

In congressional and state legislative districts a similar dynamic has been playing out, but it has been assisted by power hungry partisans. As recently as 1992, there were about 103 truly competitive swing districts in Congress and about 123 landslide districts. Today, there are roughly 35 swing districts and 242 landslide districts.

Some of this reflects the reality of voters choosing between two polarized candidates, but it also reflects substantial advances in the gerrymandering of congressional districts – drawing districts to either advantage or disadvantage a particular political party. The same thing has been going on with state legislative districts. In states dominated by Republicans, districts have been drawn to marginalize Democratic representation and Democrats have returned the favor in the states they dominate.

2012 Maryland congressional redistricting map

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s congressional redistricting map

Marginalize the opposition 

We see this in Maryland. Though Democrats do enjoy a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage in the state (57% to 27%) actual election results reveal a different balance. Republicans routinely receive 40% of the vote in the state and win in the counties and areas outside of the Baltimore/Washington corridor. That 40% largely precludes Republicans from winning statewide, but should ensure reasonable representation in the state legislature and some presence in the state’s congressional delegation, especially given the significant swaths of Maryland where Republicans routinely outpoll Democrats.

Yet the GOP claims only one of the state’s eight U.S. House seats (12.5%), only 12 of the 47 state senators (25%), and only 43 of the 141 delegates (30%). This under-representation is driven largely by the gerrymandering of Maryland’s congressional and state legislative districts. Republicans are either packed into the 1st Congressional District on the Eastern Shore and northern Maryland or they are cracked and divided among the remaining seven districts.

redistricting map

This is an image of 2014 legislative districts.

In the legislature, state senate districts defy county and city boundaries and divide neighborhoods and school districts all in the name of maximizing the number of Democratic seats. In the Maryland House, most districts elect three delegates at large with the top three candidates winning a seat. As originally intended some districts were to be divided into subdistricts – either into three one-delegate subdistricts or into one two-delegate subdistrict and one one-delegate subdistrict. Democrats have used the subdistrict allowance to carve out Democratic subdistricts in otherwise Republican areas (see map).

Almost without fail, the presence of subdistricts in Maryland redound to the benefit of Democrats.

Which brings me back to the secessionists…

Deck is stacked against Republicans, unaffiliated

If you are a Republican in Maryland, or even an independent who leans a bit more to the right than to the left, then forget being represented in Annapolis. The deck has been stacked against you. And because the districts have been so meticulously drawn, the majority party has no reason to care what minority Republicans or unaffiliated voters want. Simply stated, being a Republican in Maryland is like being a Democrat in Texas – you’re invisible. It’s this feeling of invisibility and irrelevance that’s motivating folks in Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Maryland and elsewhere.

A recent study by Professor Philip Jones at the University of Delaware determined that political competition boosts accountability of elected officials, increases participation, and motivates voters to be more informed. We increasingly live in a system that has less and less competition, which means less accountability and less participation.

We increasingly live in a system that has less and less competition, which means less accountability and less participation.

Intra-state secessionists are frustrated by a polarized and heavily manipulated political system that seeks to marginalize minority party voters in states. Nationally, the two parties may be well balanced, but it’s a balance brought about by the representative imbalance in individual states.

Our system of government was not designed to ensure representation of two extreme and polarized factions. It was designed to force extremes to compromise, cooperate, and moderate. In the absence of such compromise and cooperation, the folks who are marginalized will seek alternatives ways to be heard. Alternatives that may or may not succeed, but that nevertheless point to significant problems at the heart of our representative form of government. We would do well to listen to what these marginalized voters are saying and ask whether the system is simply failing them or failing us all.

And no, I do not support any intra-state secession efforts. Were we to allow regions of states to breakaway and create politically homogenous new states we would make worse our existing problems. The solution is not ever more homogenous states and districts, the solution is to remove the impediments to true competition and representation.

Eberly is associate professor of political science and Coordinator of Public Policy Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. We will be publishing his columns simultaneously with his own blog, The FreeStater