Voices & Choices

Might a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland prove key to reining in partisan gerrymandering?

Might a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland prove key to reining in partisan gerrymandering?

The U.S. Supreme Court  has just announced that it will hear oral arguments in Benisek v Lamone on March 28. This is a partisan gerrymandering case from Maryland and the best example from the 2011 cycle of the Democrats manipulating the process and swiping a congressional seat.

Democrats sought to turn a previous map that gave them a 6-2 advantage into a 7-1 map. So they turned the 6th congressional district, then represented by a veteran GOP incumbent, inside-out: Before Election Day 2010, the registered voters in the district included 208,024 Republicans and 159,715 Democrats. On the new maps, the district included 192,820 Democrats and 145,620 Republicans.

That’s more than 60,000 Republicans that Democrats simply booted from the 6th.

In a deposition, former Gov. Martin O’Malley admitted what the Democrats were up to: “Yes,” he said. “Part of my intent was to create a map that, all things being legal and equal, would, nonetheless, be more likely to elect more Democrats rather than less.”

There’s more background on how the Democrats did this in my story last June in The Atlantic.

Many observers were caught by surprise when the Court decided last December to hear this case, after they’d already taken oral arguments in a key Wisconsin case, Gill v Whitford.

The two cases are different: Gill involves an entire state assembly map drawn by Republicans. Benisek involves a single congressional seat drawn by Democrats. Benisek also makes a distinct argument that partisan gerrymandering violates the First Amendment’s protections of political speech and association, a line of reasoning that Justice Kennedy has been especially interested in.

Is the Court interested in a bipartisan ruling that crafts a standard around a gerrymander by both sides? Might Chief Justice John Roberts be more willing to join a decision that struck down gerrymandering in a bipartisan fashion? Is there a technical problem of standing in the Wisconsin case? And how will all of this affect the decision in the North Carolina case Common Cause v Lewis, in which a panel of federal judges struck down the entire state congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander? That decision has been temporarily stayed by the Court.

We’ll start to have some indication of what’s on the justices’ mind when they begin their questions on March 28.

In other news:

* 538 imagines what new, national single-district maps would like if they were maximized for seven different criteria, including compactness, competitiveness, and matching the partisan breakdown of the electorate.

* In Rolling Stone, Ari Berman uses Wisconsin as a laboratory for showing how gerrymandering state legislative districts led to new voter ID laws there, maximizing GOP advantages in future elections in multiple ways.

* We’ll take a closer look at the maneuverings in Ohio soon – where legislators have been considering a package of redistricting reforms at the same time that good-government groups in the state have been pushing a non-partisan ballot initiative. But here’s a story on the latest developments: Republican legislative leaders have agreed that they will only advance a reform that the citizen groups sign onto – but they must also agree not to push for a ballot initiative this fall.

* Fair Districts PA observes that a majority of the state legislature has signed on to co-sponsor their bill for an independent, non-partisan commission to draw state legislative lines in 2021. That’s the most co-sponsors of any bill this session.

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