'It looks like gerrymandering'

“I don’t know what this looks like to you, but to me, it looks like gerrymandering.”

That’s the punchline of a video Gov. Larry Hogan posted Tuesday on YouTube. It came after a series of man-on-the-street interviews in Annapolis with people asked to guess what a weird, squiggly shaped black and white drawing was. Some of the better guesses were a dog (if you turn it sideways), a cow’s face, a dragon and a pelvis. It was, of course, Maryland’s famously convoluted 3rd Congressional District, which was memorably described by a federal judge as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

We are, of course, not alone in creating crazily shaped districts through gerrymandering (though by some measures, Maryland’s maps are the least compact of any state in the nation). Nor are the people in Governor Hogan’s video alone in coming up with creative descriptions for the inkblots politicians have come up with for partisan advantage.

Perhaps the best of the lot in that regard is Pennsylvania’s 7th District, known as “Goofy kicking Donald Duck.”

The 7th was an attempt to create a Republican seat by connecting pockets of conservative voters from the Philadelphia suburbs to Amish country, though that strategy has been foiled by two unforeseen circumstances — the admission of the district’s GOP incumbent, Patrick Meehan, that he settled a sexual harassment complaint by a staff member with taxpayer dollars, and the decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the state’s congressional maps violated the state constitution. Neither Goofy nor Donald survived in the state court’s redrawn maps, which are themselves the subject of litigation.

Florida’s districts have had their share of court challenges, too, with one case of gerrymandering there a classic example of “packing” — that is, shoving as many supporters of the party out of power (in this case, Democrats) into one district as possible to prevent them from swaying the outcome in other districts. The 5th District, as enacted after the 2010 Census, squiggled from Jacksonville to Orlando in a way that lumped together pockets of minority voters over a 140-mile stretch so as to virtually guarantee that a Democrat would be elected there — and Republicans elected in all the districts that surround it. Florida judges had a variety of descriptions for it, but all seemed fixated on the “oddly shaped appendage” where it juts into the 7th.

Another fun redistricting trick is to shove two incumbents of the party that isn’t controlling the process together in one district, as Ohio Republicans did before the 2012 election. The state lost two congressional seats after the 2010 Census, and the state GOP dealt with the problem by forcing a primary duel between Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Rep. Dennis Kucinich into the same district. So what if one is from Toledo and the other from Cleveland? Enter the new 9th District, known as the “Mistake by the Lake.” (Minor details: It is connected in one place only by a bridge, and elsewhere by a beach that is sometimes under water.)

Although Republicans controlled redistricting in most states after the 2010 Census because of their success in recent state-level elections, Maryland isn’t the only place where Democrats drew the lines to their advantage. Illinois Democrats also managed to tip the scales in their party’s favor, though with less obvious absurdity than Maryland’s 3rd District. Still, Illinois 4th District, known as “The Earmuffs,” is particularly notable for its effort to link the north side and south side without touching the middle.

You may recall that after the 2000 Census, 52 Texas Democrats fled the state to prevent a quorum on new Congressional district maps masterminded by then-Rep. Tom DeLay. With Republicans more firmly in control in Austin a decade later, they had no such problems and were able to firmly cement control of the state’s delegation to Washington. Before the 2002 redistricting, Texas Democrats actually held a 17-15 edge in congressional seats; today, it’s 25-11 in the Republicans’ favor. Districts like Texas 35, the “Upside-Down Elephant,” which connects Austin and San Antonio in a packing scheme, are part of the reason why.

The state that gives Maryland a run for its money in the rankings for most gerrymandered is North Carolina, where the lines were drawn by Republicans for their advantage. Several districts there are notably contorted, but as Marylanders, our favorite has to be the 1st District for its resemblance to a steamed crab after it’s been hit by a mallet.

Governor Hogan has, bless him, been raising a stink about Maryland’s congressional maps for years, and Democrats in Annapolis have been blocking his efforts at reform the whole time. They offer the excuse that other states gerrymander just as badly as Maryland — which, obviously, is true — and for Democrats in Annapolis to give up control of the process to a non-partisan body would amount to unconditional surrender to Republicans. Well, consider this: In Ohio, the governor, John Kasich, is a Republican. The GOP controls both chambers of the legislature. They can and did draw the lines to their party’s benefit. Yet last month, both chambers voted to put on the ballot a proposal to require future congressional district lines to receive bipartisan support or, failing that, to be drawn by a neutral body. Ohio Republicans have nearly twice as many seats at stake as Maryland Democrats do. They can get behind redistricting reform. Why can’t we?

Become a subscriber today to support editorial writing like this. Start getting full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°