Ask most Maryland Democratic leaders about partisan gerrymandering, and they’ll tell you it’s a horrible problem. They’ll say that is contrary to the principles of democracy, that it lets politicians choose their voters rather than the other way around and that it contributes to hyper-partisanship in Congress and state legislatures.
Ask them to do something about it — as numerous good-government advocacy groups, editorial boards and Gov. Larry Hogan have done — and you’ll hear a different story. Taking the task of drawing congressional and legislative district lines out of the self-interested hands of Democrats in Maryland would amount to unilateral surrender, they say, and they have no interest in that unless Republicans start doing the same in the states where they have controlled the process for their own gain.
The latest developments in a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging Wisconsin’s gerrymander — which has allowed Republicans to control the State House out of all proportion to their share of the vote — begin to crack that argument. The state’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, and its GOP legislative leaders haven’t given up their defense of the maps. But in recent days, some prominent Republicans have, arguing that even if gerrymandering has helped their own party control most state houses and the House of Representatives, it is still wrong and must be stopped.
Current and former Republican office holders including Bob Dole, Alan K. Simpson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Kasich and John McCain have signed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to reject the Wisconsin maps and to declare the type of gerrymandering it represents unconstitutional. Senator McCain’s brief, submitted jointly with Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, makes the case that a 2004 Supreme Court decision eliminated any fear partisans had that gerrymandered maps would be subject to court challenges, and, buoyed by copious “dark money” from special interest groups, they took full advantage. The result, they write, is an increasingly disillusioned electorate represented by ever more partisan officials who fail to represent their constituents’ true interests.
Although the brief takes Democrats to task for their efforts to draw lines to their advantage — including a special shout-out to Maryland’s effort to flip the 6th Congressional District from Republicans to Democrats after the 2010 Census — it clearly acknowledges that the GOP has been more effective in its gerrymandering. The brief describes the party’s REDMAP initiative, which raised tens of millions to elect Republican majorities in the Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and (notably) Wisconsin legislatures in 2010 so that they might deliver Republican-friendly Congressional maps after the census.
Another brief calling on the Supreme Court to end gerrymandering has been signed by a bipartisan group of three dozen current and former members of Congress. It includes Republicans from both Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where lines were drawn in their party’s favor, and several blue state Democrats, including Maryland’s Jamie Raskin.
(Rep. Andy Harris also signed on, and while it might not seem surprising that Maryland’s lone congressional Republican would do so, it’s worth noting that a side effect of Democrats’ efforts to redraw the 6th District to their advantage was to make Dr. Harris’ 1st District as safe as can be. Maryland gerrymandering may have hurt his party, but it helped him personally.)
Most Maryland Democratic leaders have argued that we need a national solution for redistricting reform, and we don’t disagree. Congress, in its present form, appears utterly incapable of providing leadership on the issue, so the Supreme Court is likely the only hope for the moment. Perhaps the Wisconsin case, which presents some novel legal arguments and statistical measures of gerrymandering, will provide a workable vehicle.
But almost without a doubt, the court will be more likely to rule against partisan gerrymandering amid a bipartisan consensus that the practice is destructive to our system of government and undermines the intent of the Constitution. The Republicans who have signed on to oppose the Wisconsin maps that benefit their own party have made a strong statement to that effect. Maryland’s Democrats, by joining Governor Hogan’s reform efforts, could make an even more powerful one.
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