Devised explicitly and shamelessly to protect established parties and politicians from competition, the gerrymander disenfranchises regular voters and polarizes national politics. The Maryland 3rd Congressional district, with a contorted and splayed shape drawn to keep Rep. John Sarbanes safe from competition, may be the worst gerrymander in the entire country. The district proves from its sprawl, its intent, and its effect that the gerrymander has become a scourge. As such, it must be slain. Only a constitutional amendment will do. No excuses, no delay.
What is it? Self-Serving Political Protectionism
Gerrymandering is the practice by which parties and politicians draw the lines for legislative districts to improve the chances of their own re-election. The opportunity for gerrymandering arises every ten years when the states update their political maps after the national census. The practice dates at least to 1812, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry sought advantage for his own party over the opposition by creating a senate district in the shape of a salamander (hence, “Gerry-mander”). The practice has become more prevalent and pernicious in recent years due to the advance of the technologies by which voting data can be analyzed and legislative maps can be drawn.
Who does it? Every Party that has the Chance
Both Republicans and Democrats practice gerrymandering. Wisconsin is currently the subject of a Supreme Court case; it is but one of several egregious examples from the GOP. Maryland is probably the worst example of gerrymandering on the Democratic side, if not the whole country. Gov. O’Malley sponsored the convoluted map released after the 2010 census, while Rep. John Sarbanes (the Democratic incumbent who enjoys the protections of the contorted Maryland 3rd Congressional District) along with other Democratic incumbents conspired.
Maryland is proof that gerrymandering isn’t just a Republican pastime, as the state’s Democrats redrew those boundaries in 2012. The standout in that state is the 3rd Congressional district, which is the nation’s second-most gerrymandered and home to Democratic congressman John Sarbanes.
The extent to which the Maryland 3rd district is gerrymandered brought one federal judge to deride it as “a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”
Sarbanes was complicit. According to the Baltimore Sun:
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller helped draw the map and voted for it, but he acknowledged that at least one district is “odd shaped” — the 3rd. The district, now represented by Rep. John P. Sarbanes, currently forms a “Z” that crosses the Baltimore region. The new plan retains that shape and then adds a swirl along the coastline that hops over rivers and ends in Annapolis. Miller said that configuration stemmed from the committee’s desire to consider Sarbanes’ wishes. “We recognized that Congressman Sarbanes lived in Baltimore County, but wanted to continue to represent the capital city Annapolis, and that was challenging,” Miller said.
How does it threaten democracy? Less Competition, More Polarization
The gerrymander is practiced by parties and politicians who seek to protect themselves from challenge; who seek to escape the trials and risks of pursuing support from the diverse range of ideas, interests, and loyalties that prevail in any sizable human community.
As it protects the politicians, the gerrymander disenfranchises large swaths of the electorate, rendering the outcast minority without influence or representation. Disenfranchisement is, in fact, the explicit objective of the gerrymander; is the whole purpose of the gerrymander.
As it reserves political relevance to only a portion of the electorate, the gerrymander causes parties and politicians to solicit support only from a select and privileged portion of the political spectrum. Politicians lose incentive to listen to competing ideas; to assemble diverse coalitions; to cooperate on behalf of the common good; even to be civil toward those who are different in their opinions, interests, and looks.
The result is both polarization and despair. Polarization because those who end up being on the ballot, end up being extreme in their politics. Despair because those who make a majority in their communities, find themselves unrepresented in their elections.
Were the gerrymander putting but a small tilt into the field, it might be acceptable as routine shenanigans. Problem is, the gerrymander has come far too frequently and far too effectively to determine the whole game, even prior to first whistle, due to the power of modern computers. The gerrymander therefore can no longer be tolerated.
What can we do? A Constitutional Amendment
Even if it overturns the cynical Republican map for Wisconsin that is under dispute in Gill v. Whitford, the Supreme Court cannot rescue us from the gerrymander, as it can involve itself only in the most extraordinary of political events. Only a constitutional amendment to prohibit gerrymandering will deliver the robust debate and healthy competition of which our democracy has become starved.
Any such amendment must promote political competition without substantially advantaging or disadvantaging any political party or racial group. The language offered by Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in 2014 serves as a compelling model for a politically neutral amendment:
“Districts represented by members of Congress, or by members of any state legislative body, shall be compact and composed of contiguous territory. The state shall have the burden of justifying any departures from this requirement by reference to neutral criteria such as natural, political, or historic boundaries or demographic changes. The interest in enhancing or preserving the political power of the party in control of the state government is not such a neutral criterion.”
No excuses, no delay.
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Written by J. David Lashar