ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 11) — A panel of experts on gerrymandering presented the arguments against it Friday at a policy orientation forum for the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research and education group. Gov Larry Hogan has created an emergency commission to try to redraw the map.
The panelists weren’t exactly what moderator Len Lazarick would call balanced. “No one on the panel, including the moderator, supports the current gerrymandering in Maryland,” he said.
A case now back for the third time before the Supreme Court concerns partisan gerrymandering in Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District, which twists around the Eighth like a snake, all the way from Garrett County on the western border into parts of the Washington, DC, suburbs. Democrats drew the map after the 2010 Census in such a way that high numbers of Democratic voters in Montgomery County would outnumber Republican-leaning voters in the state’s western counties and give the seat in Congress to a Democrat every time.
The gerrymandering is so openly partisan, in fact, that physical evidence, in the form of documents, exists that spells out the precise motives of Democrats in the state house and the governor’s mansion. Drawing political lines is bound to be motivated by politics, but, “They might not want to write that down next time,” said Walter Olson, co-chair of the governor’s redistricting commission and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Cato Institute.
Because the plaintiffs ground their arguments in the First Amendment’s right to peaceably assemble, instead of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, the case has an advantage over other gerrymandering cases, he said about the likely course going forward.
There was actual laughter noted in the Supreme Court transcript from the last time this case was before the high court, he added. But, “Everywhere, not just at the Supreme Court, Maryland has become a laughingstock.” So the Supreme Court will again review the drawing of Maryland’s political lines, which the Fourth Circuit has called unconstitutional.
The district lines must be redrawn, the appellate court ordered, even though the remedy will last only through the 2020 elections, given the pending census in that year and the inevitable revision of district lines after any reapportionment.
The goal: more fairness, less apathy
The Court will also consider the case of North Carolina, which has drawn lines that favor Republicans so badly that the state is represented in the new Congress by nine Republicans out of 13 representatives, despite Democrats receiving about half of the votes across the state.
In Maryland, where only one Republican represents the state’s people in the US House out of eight representatives, voters can expect between one and three more Republicans in the delegation if district lines are drawn more fairly and current voting patterns continue, said Lu Pierson, past president of the League of Women Voters Maryland. Statewide in November, Democratic House candidates received 1,493,047 votes, while Republican candidates received 737,806, or about half the number received by Democrats.
District lines that are drawn more fairly might also ease some of the hyper-partisan division seen in Washington these days. “In 1982, I think it was, 60 senators and 344 representatives were considered to be centrists,” Ms Pierson said, citing the National Journal. “In 2014, zero senators and only six representatives could be considered oriented toward the center.”
She added that with the partisan divisions, which are made worse by gerrymandering, the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans win elections, leaving the center of the political spectrum absent from Washington altogether.
The reason gerrymandering makes partisan divisions worse, she said, is that it increases voter apathy. “Apathy is a completely rational response to noncompetitive elections,” she said. “That’s why gerrymandering is a personal assault on us all: Someone who might be a very good representative won’t even run for a seat in county government, because they feel they can’t win.”
Panelist Todd Eberly, associate professor of political science and public policy at St Mary’s College of Maryland, pleaded for national redistricting reform. “Gerrymandering makes voters lazy, because they think their votes won’t matter,” he said, citing the number of “safe seats” in Congress and, in particular, in California. “Only about 60 seats [out of 435] are considered competitive in each election cycle, and most of those are in states that have only one representative or where there’s no gerrymandering.
“And we can’t say that Maryland should gerrymander its districts in favor of Democrats just because North Carolina has gerrymandering that favors Republicans,” he added.
“If we can do one district with fairness, we can make it a pilot for fairness in an entire state,” Mr Olson said, referring to Maryland’s Sixth District. And from there, I hope it becomes a pilot for fairness for the group of citizens Mr Hogan has called the “majority in the middle,” who have recently shown signs of apathy and helplessness in national politics.