A Mary­land state sen­a­tor draws up a plan to curb ger­ry­man­der­ing, as long as oth­ers join in

Mary­land of­fers a rad­i­cal pro­posal for par­ti­san co­op­er­a­tion “Oth­er­wise, we are frozen at frus­tra­tion”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - −Karen Weise

In most states, leg­is­la­tors are re­spon­si­ble for re­draw­ing con­gres­sional district lines af­ter each de­cen­nial census. The ma­jor­ity party can try to ger­ry­man­der the bound­aries to shore up ma­jori­ties in its fa­vor, so fu­ture elec­tions will be eas­ier to win. That’s led to more pre­dictable elec­tions. Only 59 of 435 seats in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives are ex­pected to be com­pet­i­tive this fall, ac­cord­ing to the Cook Political Re­port, a non­par­ti­san elec­tion track­ing ser­vice. “Ev­ery­body hates it, but no­body knows how to get out of it,” says Mary­land State Sen­a­tor Jamie Raskin, a Demo­crat who’s run­ning for Congress.

Raskin has a novel so­lu­tion. In Fe­bru­ary he in­tro­duced a bill di­rect­ing Mary­land’s Demo­cratic leg­is­la­ture to cre­ate an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion to han­dle re­dis­trict­ing. Stud­ies show such com­mis­sions draw fairer maps than elected of­fi­cials. Six states, in­clud­ing Ari­zona and New Jersey, have handed over au­thor­ity to out­side bod­ies. Raskin added a twist: His pro­posal would take ef­fect only if neigh­bor­ing Vir­ginia, where Repub­li­cans con­trol the leg­is­la­ture, agrees to do the same. A sin­gle body would draw con­gres­sional lines for both states. Mary­land’s Democrats would give up their lock on power, as would Vir­ginia’s Repub­li­cans, in the in­ter­est of a more level play­ing field. The deal comes with a grand­sound­ing name: the Po­tomac Compact for Fair Rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

States rou­tinely agree to co­op­er­ate on things like shar­ing crim­i­nal records and spon­sor­ing lotteries, but only one in­ter­state compact touches on the elec­toral process. Some leg­is­la­tures have adopted the Na­tional Pop­u­lar Vote pact, un­der which par­tic­i­pat­ing states agree to com­mit elec­toral col­lege del­e­gates to the can­di­date who wins the most votes na­tion­wide—an ef­fort de­signed to head off a re­peat of the 2000 elec­tion, when Ge­orge W. Bush lost the pop­u­lar vote but won the elec­toral col­lege. If you haven’t heard of the Na­tional Pop­u­lar Vote pact, there’s a rea­son. Un­der its terms, states rep­re­sent­ing 270 elec­toral del­e­gates must sign on be­fore it takes ef­fect. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia have adopted it, leav­ing the compact 105 del­e­gates

short of the 270. Us­ing a mul­ti­state ap­proach for the Po­tomac Compact is “an ex­per­i­ment,” says Raskin, who in 2007 pushed Mary­land to be­come the first state to adopt the Na­tional Pop­u­lar Vote pact. “Oth­er­wise, we are frozen at frus­tra­tion.”

In re­cent decades, par­ties have got­ten bet­ter at us­ing tech­nol­ogy to draw district lines in their fa­vor. A 2014 pa­per in the Univer­sity of Chicago Law

Re­view found that the 2012 con­gres­sional dis­tricts were the most par­ti­san in at least four decades. Cur­rently the ad­van­tage falls to Repub­li­cans, who con­trol 30 state leg­is­la­tures, up from 16 a decade ago.

Many peo­ple be­lieve ger­ry­man­der­ing wors­ens grid­lock in Wash­ing­ton, be­cause leg­is­la­tors with safe seats don’t care about com­pro­mis­ing to at­tract mod­er­ate vot­ers. But there’s sur­pris­ingly lit­tle ev­i­dence to sup­port that the­ory. “Most political sci­en­tists just don’t think re­dis­trict­ing is a huge part of the story for polarizati­on,” says Nolan McCarthy, a pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton. What ger­ry­man­der­ing can do, though, is hand more seats to the party in con­trol. McCarthy says re­searchers are still try­ing to fig­ure out how big that ef­fect is, but it prob­a­bly can change the out­come of close leg­isla­tive votes. In 2012, House Democrats got about 1.5 mil­lion more votes na­tion­ally than Repub­li­cans, but the GOP won 54 per­cent of the open seats, ac­cord­ing to the Cook Political Re­port. “That strikes peo­ple as un­fair,” McCarthy says.

Mary­land’s dis­tricts are the most tor­tu­ous in the na­tion, ac­cord­ing to the non­par­ti­san map­ping com­pany Aza­vea. (Raskin’s run­ning for Mary­land’s 8th District, which en­com­passes D.C. sub­urbs such as Chevy Chase and cuts through Repub­li­can Fred­er­ick County as it snakes north to the Penn­syl­va­nia bor­der.) Democrats con­trol the state leg­is­la­ture and hold seven of eight con­gres­sional seats, even though they make up only about 55 per­cent of the state’s reg­is­tered vot­ers. Gov­er­nor Larry Ho­gan, a Repub­li­can, has made es­tab­lish­ing a re­dis­trict­ing com­mis­sion a pri­or­ity. He’s built a coali­tion with groups such as Com­mon Cause and the League of Women Vot­ers. “The gov­er­nor doesn’t think that law­mak­ers in Mary­land should have to wait on other state leg­is­la­tures to do what’s right,” says Ho­gan spokesman Doug Mayer.

The leg­is­la­ture’s Demo­cratic lead­er­ship hasn’t sup­ported Ho­gan’s changes, which could cost them seats. “Democrats say, ‘Why should we uni­lat­er­ally dis­arm when all of th­ese Demo­cratic states like Vir­ginia and Ohio are ger­ry­man­dered against us?’ ” says Raskin, a con­sti­tu­tional law pro­fes­sor at Amer­i­can Univer­sity. The Po­tomac Compact lets Mary­land’s Democrats sup­port the goal of re­duc­ing par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing. “The Democrats are look­ing for a way to make that hap­pen with­out los­ing their power over­all,” says Rick Hasen, an elec­tion law pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Irvine.

Raskin’s bill pro­poses mak­ing larger con­gres­sional dis­tricts in Mary­land and Vir­ginia, plus other states that may choose to par­tic­i­pate. Each of th­ese su­perdis­tricts would have mul­ti­ple elected mem­bers. Vot­ers could rank can­di­dates, a sys­tem that in the­ory re­wards politi­cians who move to the middle by giv­ing them credit for be­ing se­cond or third choice. The change to mul­ti­seat dis­tricts would re­quire mod­i­fy­ing fed­eral law.

A bill sim­i­lar to Raskin’s has been pro­posed in Mary­land’s House by Del­e­gate Kir­ill Reznik, also a Demo­crat. His adds a third state, Penn­syl­va­nia, which like Vir­ginia has a Repub­li­can-con­trolled leg­is­la­ture. He’s lined up fel­low Democrats in both states to in­tro­duce the leg­is­la­tion. “I wanted to in­clude West Vir­ginia in my bill, but I just couldn’t find a will­ing part­ner,” he says.

Reznik’s bill would di­rect the re­dis­trict­ing com­mis­sion to adopt some­thing akin to the process used in Iowa, where non­par­ti­san leg­isla­tive staff draw the bound­aries. The staffers can’t use party or elec­tion data but in­stead fo­cus on cri­te­ria such as form­ing dis­tricts where pop­u­la­tion to­tals are within 1 per­cent of one an­other. “The Iowa con­gres­sional map looks pretty sen­si­ble,” says Vir­ginia Demo­cratic Del­e­gate Mark Sick­les, who in­tro­duced Reznik’s bill in his leg­is­la­ture in Jan­uary.

There’s just over a month left in Mary­land’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion, and nei­ther Raskin’s nor Reznik’s bill has left com­mit­tee. With only a few leg­isla­tive ses­sions be­fore the 2020 census, peo­ple are run­ning out of time to fi­nal­ize re­forms be­fore the next round of map­mak­ing. In 2015 leg­is­la­tures con­sid­ered 152 bills re­lated to re­dis­trict­ing, but only seven passed, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Con­fer­ence of State Leg­is­la­tures. Those were mostly tweaks, such as re­quir­ing pub­lic hear­ings or es­tab­lish­ing a com­mit­tee to study pos­si­ble changes. Says Wendy Underhill, who runs elec­tions re­search for the con­fer­ence: “I’m guess­ing it will look a lot like that this year.”

The bot­tom line District lines are more par­ti­san than ever, and state law­mak­ers are propos­ing novel ways to break the dead­lock on re­form.

“Democrats say, ‘Why should we uni­lat­er­ally dis­arm when all of th­ese Demo­cratic states like Vir­ginia and Ohio are ger­ry­man­dered against us?’ ” ——Mary­land State Sen­a­tor Jamie Raskin

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