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

About The Author

Len Lazarick


Len Lazarick was the founding editor and publisher of MarylandReporter.com and is currently the president of its nonprofit corporation and chairman of its board He was formerly the State House bureau chief of the daily Baltimore Examiner from its start in April 2006 to its demise in February 2009. He was a copy editor on the national desk of the Washington Post for eight years before that, and has spent decades covering Maryland politics and government.


  1. Norma Kruegersome

    FULK the DEMOncRATS & all they stand for. As someone born/raised in a socialist country upto 21 years old (I am not 42) I know personally Socialism = promotion of pondsc*m, lazy, st*pid idi0ts over skillful, intelligent, decent people., it is another term for redisitrbution of wealth. Take from successful & give to monkeys on Welfare.
    Eventually democracies will fail b/c masses by definition cannot elect the most advanced/best leader – they elect populist charismatic one which ultimately is a fool himself like his electorate. The phenomenon is known as “Dysgenics” wherebuy less intelligent population will eventually run over more intelligent folks, due to higher birthrate, unless there’s a war which pits groups against & allows more intelligent ones to reign in retards… until next war
    I wasn’t even born in USA but understand why you failing the past 8 years, with Obammer in office

  2. rrhersh

    What twaddle. We have the drearily predictable claim that both sides do it: Republicans are more conservative than they used to be, while Democrats are more liberal. This is an absurd claim. Forty years ago genuine socialism was, for better or worse, a respectable element of the national conversation. Nowadays the Overton window has moved far to the right, such that right wing demagogues shout “socialism!” at tax rates lower than Ronald Reagan ever dreamed of. The only possible response from anyone whose political memory extends past last Tuesday is to point and laugh. (For all that Reagan is venerated by the right, any politicians espousing his actual policies today would be viciously denounced as a RINO.) What passes for the left today is what we used to call the center-right. Personally I am OK with that: back in the day I was a center-rightist, and usually voted Republican. Nowadays the Republican Party has abandoned that position in its descent into Bircherism. In the meantime, the Democratic Party has happily occupied the void.
    The Republican delegation is irrelevant because they choose to be. The Democratic delegation is not a monolith. It has factions with varying interests, just like any other group. It is absurd to suggest that some interest group within the Democratic delegation wouldn’t be perfectly happy to cut a deal with Republicans. A vote is a vote. But the deal has to work on both sides. If you are so concerned with purity that you won’t accept anything short of running the state as if the Republicans were the majority, then yes: you will be irrelevant in your virginal purity. It is your choice. Don’t whine about it.

    • Maryland_Malcontent

      Your post displays the classic hubris and cowardice of a centrist: one who claims to “see the flaws of both sides” (and can see how to “bridge the schism between the sides” if only the “sheeple” would listen to his “brilliant advice”), claims himself to be above his fellow men, and then hides in the “middle ground”. Too ashamed admit his cowardice, the centrist tries to downplay the radical, problematic nature of a side, sticking his head in the sand, because to admit that there is a problem is to admit his cowardice. In your case, you do the tired-out spin that the modern Democrats are not “real” socialists and try and spin that, as seen from your lofty vantage point, you can see that there is no radicalism, just a different “spectrum”. Of course, you also have to drag the 40th President through the mud.

      The irony is astounding when these puffed-up faux-intellectual centrists, such as yourself, are used as unwitting pawns, “useful idiots”, by the Democrat party; the problem with this hubris that you have, this “superior” vantage point that you claim to see from, is that it blinds you from realizing that people like Owemalley consider you to be down in the dirt & muck just like the rest of us and treat you accordingly.

      • Jack Hammer

        Your assumptions are just that. And “cowardice of a centrist”? You apparently don’t understand that the majority of us aren’t fanatic party line drones and are tired of being caught in the middle of the monkey like feces slinging battle between the two parties, because the crap is falling on us. This centrist is no coward and you would only have to chance a personal meeting and call me that to find out. I am fed up with you ASSHOLES on both sides of the aisle who have run off all of the reasonable people from politics. While you fanatic asshats are represented in state ant federal government, reasonable people who understand that this country will go down the tubes as a result of governmental gridlock caused two diametrically opposed parties of stubborn morons that can’t work together
        are not. And we are far more pissed off than you. You are getting what you want. All the money is flowing toward the wealthy elite. More and more, large corporations, big banks and Wall Street are controlling the course of the government. The NRA and ALEC drowning out the voices of the average American voter and the country is going down the toilet. It’s what you vote for. You are just another right wing finger pointing asshole and we will be better off when your ilk finally dies.

        • Alissa

          Your name is dumber than a hammer

  3. Maryland_Malcontent

    The Eastern Shore isn’t getting transportation money they say? What about that Eastern Shore bridge, neglected for years, that Owemalley has pledged to rebuild, over THREE YEARS and tens of millions of dollars? After seeing how Owemalley rammed through a business-destroying (and utterly pointless) bridge rebuilding project in my area this summer I wish the eastern shore luck with surviving Owemalley’s newest bridge project. I remember how long it took him to repair another drawbridge in my area; for over a year the bridge stood open, relegating traffic to a single span, as if it were a giant middle finger being given to us AA residents by Owemalley.

    At least they have Congressional representation. Per Donna Edwards’ own words I do not.

    Maryland could be a great state. It is America in Miniature. It has been my home for my whole life…and now I can barely resist the urge to “pull a Pipkin” and throw in the towel and head to a better state.

    • Jack Hammer

      Just don’t move here, we have enough right wing MORONS who want to drive down the same streets I do but don’t want to pay for it.

      • Uncle Joe

        Meet me & end up in cemetery LEFTWING APE ON WELFARE

  4. Angie Boyter

    Your post is a very articulate statement of what many people feel. Most are not as extreme as either party. So what can we do about it?

  5. JimmyJarnror

    One of the best articles ever on this site! You calmly explain what happens when people get gerrymandered to a point of no return.

    • Jack Hammer

      But the gerrymandering that makes the US Congress a do nothing body obstructed by Tea Baggers is ok? You can’t have it both ways.

      • Mbeka Kwesi

        All i care for is ponds*um on Welfare like yourself, steal my money.
        Hammer is like a rock – only dumber

  6. mstaylor38

    It has always been frustrating being a Republican in MD, it has gotten unbearable. Maybe we could have the first non connected state, joining the east and west and watch the middle collapse.

    • Keshawn Gallante

      If “middle” means apes in D.C., I agree

  7. abby_adams

    The Dems in MD don’t feel the need to compromise or offer any descenting voices adequate representation. They successfully gerrymandered any opposition out of existence while still demanding our tax $$. It probably wouldn’t be so bad if there were any moderate Dems in Annapolis. But they seem to have little voice over the progressives that dominate. Meanwhile, those that can leave are. Even more that want to leave are making plans. Yet legislators don’t seem to give a rat’s patootie..

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