Getting rid of redistricting’s snakes, earmuffs and pterodactyls

(The Washington Post) - Map of Maryland’s congressional districts, up for voter approval Nov. 6

(The Washington Post) - Map of Maryland’s congressional districts, up for voter approval Nov. 6

A gerrymandered congressional district often sticks out like . . . well, like a snake, a pair of earmuffs or a crab claw, to mention a few of the nicknames that the latest redistricting has inspired. A federal judge, looking at Maryland’s new 3rd District, below right, said it reminded him of “a broken-winged pterodactyl.”

Whew.

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Not many other political weapons draw near-universal scorn. Yet the gerrymanderers — legislators and governors who carve up their state’s congressional districts to gain political advantage for one party or the other — can’t seem to resist the temptation. (Iowa is a notable exception, handing over the job to a nonpartisan commission.)

With so much at stake at redistricting time — every 10 years, as mandated by the Constitution — gerrymandered maps are often challenged in the courts. But this year brings an unusual battleground: the Maryland ballot.

On Election Day, the state’s voters will approve or reject Maryland’s new district map (shown above). The Democratic-controlled legislature and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) had an overt goal when they redrew the boundaries last year: improve their party’s chances of gaining a seventhseat in the state’s eight-member congressional delegation. A Republican legislator fought back with a referendum drive. A thumbs down by voters would send the map back to Annapolis for a redo before the 2014 midterm elections.

Could the nation’s districts be redrawn as compactly as possible, giving priority to natural boundaries while meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act? That’s what a Columbia University Law School project called DrawCongress.org, directed by professor Nathaniel Persily, set out to discover last year. For the project, Matthew Galeotti was assigned to redraw Maryland’s congressional district map, shown in the second slide above, without regard to political considerations such as protecting incumbents. Instead, the project’s goal was to make the districts “as compact as possible.”

Galeotti’s new districts are indicated by the colored areas on the maps in the second and third slides above. For comparison, the black-outlined area on the map in the third slide above shows Maryland’s current 3rd Congressional District, which pinwheels its way through four counties.

In Galeotti’s plan, “there are no skinny lines connecting to masses of people,” he said. “There are no circular-shaped districts. The lines are in natural places based in geography.”

The students’ maps did have one political consideration — the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which tries to ensure that the minority vote is not diluted by redistricting. For this reason, both the actual map and Galeotti’s have two majority-minority districts.

Other than that, Galeotti’s map “was intentionally politically ignorant,” he says.

— Outlook staff

 
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