Political Momentum Builds for Ending a Scourge on Democracy

Manipulating political boundaries every ten years clogs up court dockets, unleashes raw political forces, and breeds cynicism everywhere in the nation. There have been 219 cases involving state legislative and congressional redistricting since 2010, and that does not include another wave of lawsuits over municipal and county redistricting.

Professor Justin Levitt, of Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, tracks court cases exposing our nation’s troubled history with redistricting, which has essentially morphed to match the definition of the term “gerrymandering” as legislative districts are often drawn to please politicians, not voters.   

Both political parties are guilty of this practice (the Florida Supreme Court this month invalidated several congressional districts as unduly influenced by partisanship where Republicans hold the legislature and governorship) and one of them has an opportunity to reform the system.

Maryland, which Democrats until recently ran as a fiefdom, is a case study of how the process becomes medieval when one party has been in power too long. The state holds the record for the most legal challenges to Congressional redistricting, and for good reason. Since the 2010 Census required states to adjust boundaries due to population changes, Maryland claims another record as the most gerrymandered state in the nation. That is the conclusion of geographic information services firm Azavea which uses mathematical formulas to determine the degree to which a congressional boundary fails to achieve a coherent shape. A map, however, is a much easier way to understand the problem.

Federal judges called Maryland’s third congressional district “a Rorschach-like eyesore” and “a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.” Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in a rare 2011 interview, characterized Maryland’s redistricting process as “outrageously unconstitutional.” The sprawling third district covers parts of the Washington suburbs along with Baltimore and Annapolis, which have widely divergent interests.  

Then-governor Martin O’Malley appointed a five-member commission four years ago stacked with partisan Democrats. Among the committee’s members were the Senate president and House speaker who have now been members of the Maryland General Assembly for a combined 68 years.  According to Maryland Reporter.com, the governor intentionally set up the commission as “advisory to the chief executive,” thereby avoiding the state’s Open Meetings Act.  

After the congressional maps were drawn in secret, the plan was rammed through the legislature on a party-line vote and O’Malley signed it into law soon after the plan was made publicly available for the first time. The motivation was to reduce Maryland’s GOP representation in the 2012 elections, and the Republican incumbent lost in the new, badly distorted district which stretched from the rural part of the state bordering West Virginia to encompass liberal precincts in suburban Washington’s Montgomery County.

Fast forward to today where the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ballot initiative in Arizona enabling an independent commission to assume redistricting duties from the state legislature. Last month’s decision in Arizona Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is a case some legal analysts describe as a “big win” for voters, while others believe the majority of justices trumped the Constitutions’ election clause which says the process is under the power of state legislatures. Whatever the views of the decision, this is an opportunity for reform.

This decision paves the way for states to follow the lead of 13 others using bipartisan redistricting commissions. The Supreme Court provides political momentum and legal clarity for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican elected last year, who called for a commission to study redistricting. Maryland has a reputation of embracing perceived good-government causes like California, where its commission is held up as a national model. It will be difficult for Maryland Democrats to go against the grain of progressive California, much less the liberal wing of the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the Arizona commission.

When it comes to elections, however, Maryland is more like a banana republic where corruption is legendary. When GOP nominee Ellen Sauerbrey, whom political observers of both parties believe had the governorship stolen from her in the 1994 general election, challenged voter fraud, she faced a Democratic machine well-accustomed to controlling the levers of power. 

One interesting case is Parrott v. McDonough, which illustrates how the Maryland election process is rigged from beginning to end. The case hinged on ballot language voters were asked to approve in a 2012 referendum. A political appointee wrote misleading language to make voters believe they were approving the requirement for redistricting, not denying the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.  

The Supreme Court has eliminated excuses for stifling election reform. Elected officials have an opportunity to eliminate a scourge on our Democracy and fix a broken system.

Mark Plaster, an attorney and emergency room doctor, is a candidate for Congress in Maryland’s third Congressional district.