THERE WAS never any secret about what Maryland Democrats who hold sway in Annapolis were up to when they redrew the state’s congressional district boundaries in 2011. At the time, a few were publicly coy, saying they hoped to make a district more “competitive,” but that was a fig leaf for their real agenda: flipping the 6th District from Republican to Democratic hands.
It worked. By carving Montgomery County into three jagged shards, and redistributing its mother lode of Democratic voters, the mapmakers managed to stack the electoral deck against a Republican incumbent, then-Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, who’d then held the 6th District seat for nearly two decades. The next year, faced with new electoral boundaries and hundreds of thousands of new constituents, Mr. Bartlett lost. Democrats, who had previously held six of the state’s eight seats in the House of Representatives, now held seven.
The Democrats’ excesses were clear from the outset, and any uncertainty was dispelled when former governor Martin O’Malley, who signed the new map into law, admitted last year in a court deposition that his explicit hope and intent was to flip the seat. The fact that Republicans in other states were doing the same thing doesn’t absolve the Democrats; it makes the case for reform more pressing.
A special panel of three federal judges that heard a Republican-backed lawsuit challenging the Maryland map ruled unanimously that it should be redrawn — if not by a nonpartisan commission established by the state, then by one the court itself has appointed for the purpose. That should have been the last word in the matter. Instead, Maryland’s attorney general, Brian E. Frosh, a Democrat, is appealing the panel’s ruling to the Supreme Court.
In court filings, Mr. Frosh, who as a state senator in 2011 had a hand in the partisan mapmaking, revived the story about trying to make the 6th District more competitive. The judges (who had Mr. O’Malley’s admission to clarify things) were having none of it, ruling that there was “no doubt” about the Democrats’ intent, and also concluding that its effect was to impede GOP voters’ ability to raise funds and elect representatives of their choosing.
Some reform-minded strategists who support nonpartisan redistricting cheer Mr. Frosh’s appeal, hoping it will prompt the Supreme Court to establish a standard that will squash gerrymandering nationwide. That seems unlikely; the high court has repeatedly sidestepped setting a constitutional benchmark for what constitutes gerrymandering excess.
In Annapolis, Democrats have dug in their heels against establishing a nonpartisan redistricting commission, having rejected legislation along those lines, pushed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), for three straight years. They disdain it as unilateral political disarmament. That’s a handy dodge. In fact, an overwhelming majority of Marylanders, Democrats as well as Republicans, prefers that a neutral party, not politicans, draws the electoral map .
It’s nice to imagine that politicians across state lines would make deals to reform the process in concert, but that’s not in the cards. Better that elected officials in each state heed public opinion, which was further clarified in the midterms when voters in Colorado, Michigan and Missouri all voted to shift mapmaking away from politicians. That should be a cue to elected officials elsewhere — even in Maryland.