Md. Dems’ re­dis­trict­ing re­form hinges on 5 other states

Maryland Independent - - News - By JA­COB TAY­LOR

AN­NAPO­LIS — Democrats in the Mary­land leg­is­la­ture are ad­vanc­ing a bill that would cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to re­draw the state’s con­gres­sional dis­tricts, but only if five other mid-At­lantic states im­ple­ment sim­i­lar re­forms by the end of 2032.

Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) pro­posed re­forms that, if passed in a ref­er­en­dum, would take away law­mak­ers’ power to cre­ate dis­tricts.

Re­dis­trict­ing and its ugly cousin, ger­ry­man­der­ing, are emerg­ing as ma­jor na­tion­wide is­sues, and re­form ef­forts have the po­ten­tial to fun­da­men­tally re­order pol­i­tics in sev­eral state gov­ern­ments as well as the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

The Democrats’ plan cre­ates an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to draw leg­isla­tive dis­tricts if five other states — New York, New Jersey, Vir­ginia, Penn­syl­va­nia, and North Carolina — do the same by 2032. They would all have to pass re­forms by the end of 2020 for the bill to af­fect the next re­dis­trict­ing process, which will be based on the re­sults of the 2020 cen­sus.

Ho­gan’s plan would have added a ref­er­en­dum on a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to the next gen­eral elec­tion bal­lot. If passed by vot­ers, the amend­ment would have stripped the Gen­eral Assem­bly of its power to draw con­gres­sional dis­tricts and re­placed the process with an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion. Democrats de­feated the gov­er­nor’s plan in com­mit­tee.

One of the ma­jor ob­sta­cles to in­de­pen­dent re­dis­trict­ing, in Mary­land and else­where, is the fear that lev­el­ing the play­ing field at the state level will put one na­tional party at a dis­ad­van­tage against still-ger­ry­man­dered states where the op­po­si­tion party is in con­trol.

The five states men­tioned in the Democrats’ bill and Mary­land cur­rently send a to­tal of 45 Repub­li­cans and 44 Democrats to the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

State Sen. Craig Zucker (D-Mont­gomery), the lead spon­sor of the Democrats’ bill, ac­knowl­edged that this nearly even split makes it less likely that re­form will give ei­ther party an im­me­di­ate ad­van­tage at the na­tional level. The dom­i­nant party in those states would sur­ren­der the ad­van­tage that par­ti­san re­dis­trict­ing gives them in ex­change for neu­tral­iz­ing that ad­van­tage in an­other state where their party is in the mi­nor­ity.

Todd Eberly, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and pub­lic pol­icy at St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land, told the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s Cap­i­tal News Ser vice that re­gional com­pacts, such as the one pro­posed by Democrats, are un­likely to suc­ceed.

Out­side of a Supreme Court rul­ing that finds ger­ry­man­der­ing un­con­sti­tu­tional, Eberly said, the most likely source of na­tional re­dis­trict­ing re­form might be Repub­li­cans in Congress. If Repub­li­cans lose state leg­is­la­tures and gov­er­nor­ships in the 2018 and 2020 elec­tions, the last elec­tions be­fore the next cen­sus, they may lose con­trol of re­dis­trict­ing in the af­fected states.

If the losses are big enough, Eberly sug­gested, Con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans might be mo­ti­vated to re­form re­dis­trict­ing to pre­vent Democrats from so­lid­i­fy­ing their vic­to­ries through ger­ry­man­der­ing.

The Supreme Court has ac­knowl­edged in prin­ci­ple that par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing could be so ex­treme in cer­tain cases that it might vi­o­late the equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion clause of the Con­sti­tu­tion. The prob­lem is that the Court has yet to find a re­li­able test to de­ter­mine how much ger­ry­man­der­ing is too much.

In 2016, Wis­con­sin’s state assem­bly maps were ruled un­con­sti­tu­tion­ally ger­ry­man­dered by a fed­eral dis­trict cour t. The case re­lies on the re­sults of the 2012 and 2014 elec­tions, where Democrats won the ma­jor­ity of the statewide gen­eral assem­bly vote, but Repub­li­cans still won 60 of the 99 seats in the assem­bly. That case has been ap­pealed and is sched­uled to be heard by the Supreme Court in 2017.

Wide­spread re­dis­trict­ing re­form, whether through in­ter­state com­pacts like the one pro­posed in Mary­land or a rul­ing from the Supreme Court, has the po­ten­tial to mas­sively re­shape Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

Ex­clud­ing va­can­cies, Democrats cur­rently hold about 45 per­cent of the seats in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, against the 55 per­cent held by Repub­li­cans. Though dif­fi­cult to quan­tify, some of the Repub­li­can lead is likely due to the party’s su­pe­rior strength at the state level, which has al­lowed it to cre­ate fa­vor­able con­gres­sional dis­trict maps in more states, con­tain­ing more to­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tives, than the Demo­cratic Party.

In re­cent decades, Democrats and Repub­li­cans have fallen into a re­li­able cy­cle of power. With a uni­fied Repub­li­can gov­ern­ment in Wash­ing­ton, the ques­tion is not whether Democrats will take back con­trol, but when. A sud­den shift to non-par­ti­san re­dis­trict­ing would likely nar­row the gap be­tween Democrats and Repub­li­cans in the House, po­ten­tially has­ten­ing the re­turn to Demo­cratic power.

That is likely one of the rea­sons why Barack Obama has re­port­edly de­cided to pur­sue re­dis­trict­ing re­form as part of his post-pres­i­dency agenda. As pres­i­dent, Obama presided over his­toric losses for his party at the state level and in Congress. In­de­pen­dent re­dis­trict­ing might of­fer some­thing of a moon-shot to re­cover from those losses far faster than the usual cy­cle of po­lit­i­cal power would al­low.

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