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.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan 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 Service 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 court. 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.
By Jacob Taylor