Democrats decry gerrymandering — unless they control the maps
As Democrats across the country blast aggressive Republican gerrymanders as a blatant threat to America’s democratic order, party leaders in two blue states are playing hardball with their own congressional district lines, finalizing plans that could shut Republicans entirely out of delegations to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Those states, Maryland and New Mexico, underscore the tension between a faction of Democrats who publicly support reforming the redistricting process and legislators who control blue states who are committing the same sort of gerrymanders the GOP has executed in other states.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that they’re just responding to Republicans,” said Doug Spencer, an associate professor of law at the University of Colorado who runs the All About Redistricting website. “Despite all the rhetoric, they have shown themselves to be equally thirsty for power.”
In Maryland, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly has approved a plan that would shift the state’s lone Republican-held district, held by Rep. Andy Harris, dramatically toward Democrats.
The district is now the most competitive in a state in which Democrats already hold seven of eight U.S. House seats. An analysis by the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project found that, based on past elections, the Democratic vote share in the newly drawn seat stands at nearly 51 percent, imperiling Harris’s future in Congress.
“This isn’t about fair representation. It’s basically trying to create an 8-0 map with very grotesque districts. You can’t do it with a straight face,” said state Sen. Justin Ready (R), who represents Carroll County. “It’s one thing for a map to be more favorable. It’s another for them to pass this Rorschach test.”
On Thursday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the maps — though his veto is almost certain to be overturned by Democrats who maintain a supermajority in the General Assembly.
Spokespeople for state Senate President Bill Ferguson (D) and House Speaker Adrienne Jones (D) did not return emails seeking comment.
Across the country in New Mexico, Democrats in the state legislature are advancing a proposal to add thousands of new Democratic voters to a sprawling rural district that stretches south to the Mexican border, liberalizing a district held by Rep. Yvette Herrell (R).
Under that plan, which splits Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, between two districts, all three of New Mexico’s U.S. House seats would lean toward Democrats. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has not said whether she will sign them into law, but she is unlikely to issue a veto.
State House Speaker Brian Egolf (D) blocked a proposal to establish an independent redistricting committee earlier this year, when he told redistricting reform advocates that doing so would represent unilateral disarmament at a time when Republicans feel virtually no constrains over drawing egregious lines.
Egolf’s office did not respond to a request for comment this week.
Both Maryland and New Mexico gave Democratic congressional candidates a majority of the vote in 2020, but Republicans were not irrelevant: In Maryland, Republican candidates won more than a third of the votes. In New Mexico, they topped 45 percent.
But under the new plans, Republicans are likely to struggle to avoid a shutout for the next decade — a scenario that illustrates the tension inherent between Democratic efforts to reform the redistricting process in some states while maximizing their gains in others.
“The Democrats have two strategies. One is nationally focused. They’re very aware of what’s happened in Ohio and Indiana,” Spencer said, referring to two states where Republicans have gerrymandered maps to give themselves overwhelming odds of maintaining a huge majority of U.S. House seats for the next decade.
“As Democrats, they feel obligated or committed to doing their part to provide Democratic seats at the national level,” Spencer said. “The Democrats feel emboldened to try to get the most as they can, just as Republicans have.”
Republicans control the redistricting process in far more states this year than do Democrats, a continued consequence of the GOP’s success in winning over state legislative districts — and therefore the authority to draw congressional and legislative district lines — in the 2010 elections. Democrats never recovered from that blow, so they now face another decade of disadvantage.
So Democrats have embraced a strategy of naming and shaming egregious partisan gerrymanders — at least when those gerrymanders are committed by Republicans.
In recent weeks, former Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has accused Georgia Republicans of drawing congressional district maps that “silence the voices” of communities of color. He has called an Ohio redistricting plan that would leave Democrats with only two of 15 U.S. House districts an “insult” to voters. And he has praised the federal Department of Justice he once ran for suing Texas over its “discriminatory” maps that he says reek of “anti-democracy.”
Holder has made no comment about the Democratic-drawn maps in Maryland or New Mexico — or in a state like Oregon, the first state to complete the congressional redistricting process, where legislators drew five districts that favored Democrats compared to just one that will elect a Republican.
“To equate the New Mexico and Maryland maps with the Republican gerrymandering in states like Texas and North Carolina is false on its face. The New Mexico map, for example, preserves the second district as a Hispanic opportunity seat, empowers the state’s significant Native American population in the third district, and is reflective of the demographics of the state as whole,” said Kelly Ward Burton, the NDRC’s president.
“Meanwhile, Republicans in Texas increased the number of majority white districts, despite 95% of the population growth over the past decade coming from people of color,” Burton added. “One of these maps is responsive to the people, and the other was designed specifically to dilute the power of their vote.”
Burton did not address the Maryland maps.
Republicans see an effort to draw favorable maps that could backfire, especially in a strong year for the GOP. Adam Kincaid, who heads the National Republican Redistricting Trust, said Democrats were drawing lines that give their side weak advantages in many seats, rather than creating bulwarks that could withstand electoral waves.
“Democrats are overextending themselves in a desperate attempt to save Nancy Pelosi’s majority,” Kincaid said. “If Democrats in New Mexico and Maryland overreach, like Democrats have already done in Illinois and Nevada, they’re going to end up either inadvertently padding the coming Republican majority or leaving their maps vulnerable to a court challenge.”
The decennial redistricting process has entered a brave new world of both unprecedented transparency, thanks to software advances that give regular Americans both an immediate window into how map lines are drawn and the software necessary to craft their own maps, and virtually unmitigated partisanship, after Supreme Court verdicts in the last several years tore down guardrails that once restricted legislators.
That has not stopped Democrats from launching legal challenges against Republican-drawn district lines in states like Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and elsewhere.
Legal experts said the dual tracks — of challenging gerrymanders in some states while pursuing unequally partisan lines in others — is not likely to disrupt the Democratic legal strategy.
“Judges are lawyers themselves, and they’ve had to represent different clients often in contradictory lawsuits. To punish a lawyer for arguing one thing in one court and another thing in another court is usually not what courts do,” said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford Law School professor and redistricting expert who has worked on plans in several battleground states. “But when you’re dealing with Congress, it’s not irrelevant that a judge might point to egregiousness on both sides.”
The most significant Supreme Court rulings of the last decade struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act that hindered the federal government’s ability to regulate redistricting efforts in states that had historically disenfranchised minority voters and, in a case called Rucho v. Common Cause, restricted the federal judiciary’s role in policing partisan gerrymandering.
“It is true that the Democrats have gerrymandered, but they don’t have the power to do so in most states,” Persily said.
Spencer, at the University of Colorado, argued that the Democratic gerrymanders may actually serve a counterintuitive purpose — that, by drawing egregiously partisan maps, they could force the courts to revisit the Rucho decision.
“There is some sense in which they feel free from the constraints like Republicans have because of Rucho to draw maps that give them power,” he said.
The Maryland and New Mexico maps are “a different framework for showing courts why this is a problem,” Spencer added. “In our lifetimes, a federal court is going to take this issue up again.”