A blood splatter. A Rorschach test. A praying mantis. A "broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state," to quote one federal judge.
We’re talking about Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, represented by Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, now in his seventh term. Once spotted on a map, its nicknames make sense. The district’s boundaries are unmistakably tortuous, encompassing sections of Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties and Baltimore city; one sliver in northeast Baltimore is narrower than two city blocks. It’s arguably one of the nation’s most severely gerrymandered districts.
With the 2020 Census looming — followed by a redrawing process for all congressional districts in 2021 — there’s renewed focus on the praying mantis. Before 2003, it was a fairly contiguous, compact district; constituents, as one can see on a 2002 map of Maryland’s congressional districts, lived reasonably close to one another. Over time the district grew more diffuse. Then in 2011, Maryland’s congressional districts were redrawn with a Democratic governor and a Democratic state legislature, and the 3rd District gobbled up sections of Montgomery and Anne Arundel. Sarbanes was never in danger of losing his seat, which Democrats have held since the 1920s. But pushing westward had the effect of shifting more wealthy Democratic voters into his district — “potential donors for a future Senate campaign,” the New Republic suggested in 2012.
In January, I drove across the district to explore the ridiculousness of its shape, which is more than an issue of aesthetics. Before I left, I called Charles Anthony, a Republican candidate from Silver Spring who challenged Sarbanes in November — and lost 28 percent to 69 percent. Anthony said many of the roughly 2,000 people he spoke with across the 3rd District were amazed at its boundaries. He described his experience running as a Republican in the district this way: “It’s like hitting your head against a wall.”
In 2014, nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause and the League of Women Voters staged a 225-mile Gerrymander Meander relay race along the 3rd District's outline; it involved kayaks, a motor boat and bicycles, and took three days. As I had only a day, I stuck to the road. I began early on a Friday morning in Baltimore County near Towson. I headed south to Baltimore, where the district wraps around part of Rep. Elijah Cummings's 7th District. There, I visited Lawrence Grandpre, research director of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a think tank focused on public policy advocacy for Baltimore's black residents. "When you look at the way they draw these districts, most of the people know they're safe. So if they know they're safe, what is the desire for democratic accountability?" he said.
Grandpre argued that gerrymandering not only handicaps Republicans in general elections, but also limits the kind of Democrats that get elected. He said that districts are drawn to elect moderates and to “prevent a consolidation of support around black people, people of color, who may represent folks of a different class interest.” Those interests, of course, have some representation under the current system — but not enough, Grandpre explained: “You could say the construction of districts ... places concerns of these communities lower on the list of concerns.”
The power of gerrymandering played out dramatically most recently in the 6th District, which Democrats rearranged in 2011 to incorporate voters from a swath of reliably blue Montgomery County into the malbec-red area of Western Maryland. Former governor Martin O’Malley admitted in a deposition that their intent was to make the district more favorable to Democrats. Indeed, the district flipped from red to blue in the 2012 elections, shaving one of two Republicans from Maryland’s eight-member congressional delegation. (Among registered voters in the state, Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly 2-to-1.)
Republicans sued, and, in the fall, a three-judge panel ruled that the 6th District’s boundaries are illegal and must be redrawn before the 2020 elections. An appeal in that case, brought by Maryland’s Democratic attorney general, will now go before the Supreme Court this spring, although not soon enough for Gov. Larry Hogan: The Republican created an emergency commission in the fall to redraw the 6th District, which he called, along with the state’s other congressional districts, “an embarrassment to our state” in a Facebook post.
My tour of the 3rd District took me next to Annapolis on the district’s southeastern tip. To get there I had to leave the district, drive more than 20 miles, about half the length of Anne Arundel County, then reenter the district just outside the state capital. There, Ashley Oleson of the League of Women Voters of Maryland told me gerrymandering not only affects election outcomes, but also what happens once the winners reach Capitol Hill.
“It trickles down to everyday policies that you care about, like health care and the environment,” she said. “When you go into your legislator’s office, they may hear you. But they’re not going to be as concerned that if they don’t move on an issue that they’re going to lose their seat.”
Ultimately, critics of gerrymandering say, it feeds voter apathy. “Across party lines, we hear, ‘We don’t feel like we have a voice in the process,’ ” Damon Effingham, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, had explained to me over the phone a few days earlier. “People wonder why they should vote when the result has been preordained by the legislature that drew the maps this way.”
After my meeting with Oleson, it was getting close to the start of evening rush hour, so I decided to zip through the area of Howard County within the 3rd District, which includes parts of Columbia, and then, staying within the district, head south to Silver Spring. Anthony had recommended that I go to the Trader Joe’s grocery store on Route 29, which is at the border of the district. I ended up deciding, instead, to go to a nearby Starbucks because it was close to a weird little nook of the 8th District that is carved into the 3rd. When I got there, I consulted a printed-out map I had brought along — but at that point, I wasn’t entirely sure that I was even still in the 3rd. (Later, I figured out that I had — barely — stayed in bounds.)
Before exploring the praying mantis, I had called Sarbanes, the current beneficiary of the 3rd District’s design, to see whether he agreed with the criticisms leveled at those who represent gerrymandered districts. He flatly rebuffed the idea that a safe seat makes him take voters for granted. “Whoever I end up serving after the lines are drawn, I’m going to make sure they’re getting the attention they have a right to expect from their representative,” he said.
To Sarbanes, the wonky shape of the 3rd District is a feature, not a bug. “As a national legislator, it’s actually in my interest to get input from a lot of different kinds of communities, because I’m being asked to vote on legislation that affects the whole country,” he told me. “Having a lot of different points of view, that’s incredibly helpful.”
Still, as chair of the Democracy Reform Task Force in the U.S. House, Sarbanes takes a more skeptical view of gerrymandering as a general practice. He’s one of more than 200 Democrats backing H.R. 1, a package of provisions that would leave the redrawing of congressional districts to independent commissions instead of state legislatures, something polls show a majority of Marylanders want. Said Sarbanes: “The reason you want there to be more-objective standards in place for redistricting across the country is because then the public feels more respected by that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that in 2014, Common Cause organized the Gerrymander Meander relay race along the 3rd District’s outline. The event was co-organized with the League of Women Voters. This version has been updated.
Andrew Zaleski is a writer in Maryland.