The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats get caught doing some gerrymandering of their own

From left: Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), James Warner, Del. Christopher T. Adams (R-Wicomico) and Del. Kathryn Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) stand outside the Maryland State House on March 25, after a judge ruled that a redrawn congressional map is unconstitutional. (Ovetta Wiggins/The Washington Post)
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There was no secret about Maryland Democrats’ agenda when they ignored a proposed congressional map drawn up by a bipartisan citizens commission last year and substituted one they liked better. Not content with their 7-to-1 advantage in the state’s delegation in the House of Representatives — the product of computer-assisted map-drawing trickery in 2010 — they were intent on a clean sweep in this year’s elections: eight seats for Democrats, zero for Republicans.

Last week, a state judge declared the Democrats’ map an affront to Maryland’s constitution and ordered a new one drafted immediately. It’s worth noting that Anne Arundel County Senior Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, who made the ruling, is not exactly hostile to Democrats — she served as U.S. attorney for Maryland as an appointee of President Bill Clinton, and before that as chief of staff to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, both Democrats. She was nominated to the bench, in 2001, by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, also a Democrat.

Yet Judge Battaglia was right not to countenance this fresh attempt at twisty-turvy line-drawing on Maryland’s electoral map by Democratic lawmakers. And she was correct that it was illegally partisan, violating constitutional and legal prohibitions ensuring free elections and compact electoral districts.

In fact, the Democrats’ map made a mockery of compactness in service to their brazen goal of unseating the state’s lone Republican in Congress, Rep. Andy Harris, who represents the 1st Congressional District, on the GOP-leaning Eastern Shore. Their map reconfigured his district by hopscotching across the Chesapeake Bay to include heavily Democratic precincts in Anne Arundel. Those areas, the Democrats hoped, would provide the votes to make Mr. Harris’s current, sixth term in the House his last.

The Democrats’ map jiggering was no less egregiously partisan than what Republicans have managed in states where they control the legislature, and hence the decennial redistricting process. That was the rationale by which some of them justified it; it was hardly one that was admissible in court.

Their effort was all the more outrageous because a better, fairer way was immediately available — a map weighted toward the idea that voters should choose their elected representatives, not the other way around. It was produced by a bipartisan citizens commission established last year by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who acted after the Democrats in the state legislature refused his attempts at meaningful redistricting reform. Mr. Hogan’s commission was balanced among Democrats, Republicans and independents. It might not have been perfect — he appointed all its members — but the map it produced was awarded an A for partisan fairness by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

State House Democrats rejected it in favor of one they drafted unilaterally. Unsurprisingly, it got an F from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

Now, following Judge Battaglia’s ruling, Democrats have tinkered with their own map, in secret, rather than adopt the available citizens commission map. They are planning to submit the new version this week to the judge. She may accept it, amend it, send it back to the legislature for a redo or adopt the citizens commission plan. In any of these scenarios, appeals would follow, and the question will likely end up with Maryland’s highest tribunal, the state’s Court of Appeals.

Neither party has clean hands when it comes to gerrymandering. Maryland’s example makes a mockery of Democrats’ indignation, in other states, at the GOP’s own map manipulations.

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