Maryland's 3rd congressional district has been described as everything from a broken-winged pterodactyl to blood spatter at a crime scene. It's a district so egregiously carved, you need a boat to travel across it without crossing into another district (it should be noted the district contains no islands).
While the 3rd district might be the worst example of gerrymandering in Maryland, it's not the only district carved to give an outsized advantage to the state's Democratic majority. While Republicans in the state comprise roughly 30% of the vote and live in clusters dense enough to comprise their own districts, Republicans comprise half that amount in the state's congressional delegation.
In 2015, Governor Larry Hogan formed a commission to examine how Maryland's redistricting process could be improved to better represent the totality of voters in the state. Governor Hogan has reassembled a similar commission this year, with the goal of making a more equitable congressional map for the coming decade.
Walter Olson, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, was named to both, and shared some of his insights on how Maryland and other states can do a better job creating congressional maps that truly reflect voter opinion on this episode of You Don't Have to Yell.
In Maryland's first commission, their goal was to create a redistricting process that took into account the way politics were conducted in he state, pull from the best practices of similar independent redistricting commissions, and avoid some of the mistakes those commissions made.
Their process lead to three findings:
- Having an equal balance of Democrats and Republicans was important, but it was equally important to ensure political dependents had an equal amount of power. In commissions where the independents were equal in number to Democrats and Republicans, things went much smoother than in commissions with just one independent, which usually resulted in the two major parties ganging up on them.
- Districts should be carved with contiguous and compactness in mind (ahem, District 3). This meant respecting municipal boundaries, such as county and town lines, while also considering geographic anomalies that might impact this - such as mountains or bodies of water.
- Commissions should be blind to data that might indicate the partisan tilt of a given region. While it's still possible to infer some level of partisan tilt, it's more difficult to effectively gerrymander without more precise knowledge of voter rolls and other demographic information.
The biggest takeaway is that redistricting still needs to be the responsibility of the states. While the Supreme Court's punt on partisan gerrymandering can be debated, it's also important to understand that how states govern differs based on a number of factors. In Maryland, for instance, voters are used to face-to-face politics and many government services are administered at the county level. As a result, compact districts that respect county lines are more important than in a state like California, where the counties aren't as important and districts can be relatively large geographically.
For the average voter, Olson recommends participating in the process however possible. Many states offer public hearings where voters can voice their concerns, and others have been influenced by voter submitted map, made possible by open-source redistricting software such as DistrictBuilder.
If these methods are unavailable, politicians are unusually sensitive to having their districts called into question. Pointing out irregularities in district maps - such as pointing out odd shapes designed to include the residence of the incumbent - in public forums can often move the needle.
It would be ideal if we could reform the process simply by voting, but, in this case, that's what commissions are for.