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”
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