WASHINGTON -- Two governors have the same problem: Their states are heavily gerrymandered, giving one party a disproportionate share of seats in the state legislature and Congress. Both governors want to create independent redistricting commissions that would draw fairer districts. But both states' legislatures are virulently opposed to the idea.
Here's the catch: The governors are from different parties. In Virginia, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is trying to convince a Republican legislature to give up its control over redistricting. Across the Potomac in Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan is trying to sell his state's Democratic legislature on the same idea.
In most states, redistricting is an inherently political process: Whichever party is in power after each census draws district boundaries for the next 10 years. Although Democrats hold every statewide office in Virginia, they possess just three of the state's 11 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Maryland is a great example of how Democrats are as much at fault as Republicans, though they are more likely than the GOP to complain about gerrymandering: Democrats have a 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration, but a 7-to-1 advantage in the congressional delegation.
In Virginia, a court found that Republican legislators illegally packed black voters into Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott's district. The court has ordered the legislators back for a special session starting Aug. 17 to redraw the lines. And in Maryland, Democratic legislators have been accused by both parties and by redistricting advocacy groups of spreading African-American voters across multiple districts and cramming Republicans into one -- that of GOP Rep. Andy Harris -- to ensure safe elections for their candidates.
This results in some weird-looking districts. Here are two:
Which party supports independent redistricting in a given state depends mostly on which party is dominant in that state. In 2000, Arizona voters expressed their frustration with gerrymandering by approving a ballot initiative that created an independent redistricting commission to draw the state's districts. Republican legislators sued after the 2012 election, arguing that it was unconstitutional to cut them completely out of the district-drawing process. (Defenders of the commission said Republicans were upset that it made districts more competitive.)
In June, the Supreme Court ruled against the Arizona Republicans and allowed the commission to endure. Arizona Republicans were livid. But their GOP neighbors in California, where Democrats are overwhelmingly dominant, were relieved -- the decision protected California's redistricting commission from legal challenges and reduced the risk that Democrats will gerrymander the nation's most populous state.
But Maryland and Virginia voters can't place referendums on the ballot as easily as Arizonans or Californians. In both eastern states, the legislature would have to approve the change. And Virginia Republicans and Maryland Democrats are loathe to risk their dominant positions.
Advocates for independent redistricting in Virginia believe that the Arizona commission's victory should help their case. Their task is to convince Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates to follow the state Senate's lead and put the question of an independent commission on the ballot as a constitutional amendment for the state's voters. But the lower chamber's leaders stonewalled the proposal, letting it die in committee earlier this year.
"The Arizona case was tremendous from a political rhetoric standpoint; it meant a whole lot to us and it's proving the point that citizens can do this and take it out of the hands of politicians who have a tremendous conflict of interest," said Brian Cannon, the executive director of OneVirginia2021.
In Maryland, polling has shown that a majority of the state's voters favor having an independent commission. But Democrats there have argued that reform redistricting should happen at the national level so as not to "disadvantage" Democrats or throw the relative representation of the states in Congress "off balance."
"Congress is deadlocked. We haven’t seen them act on anything of importance. To say we have to wait for them is just passing the buck," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, Common Cause Maryland's executive director.
Groups that are opposed to gerrymandering in Maryland say that the districts are so spread out that it's tough for representatives to provide constituent services. The only way to convince Democratic legislators to back an independent redistricting proposal is to get their constituents to put the pressure on, argued Nancy Soreng, the co-president of the League of Women Voters of Maryland.
"The best strategy is to get the people, the voters who are impacted by poor redistricting maps, to really let their legislators know that they want fair representation and they want the lines drawn in an open and transparent way," she said.
Democratic legislators in Maryland appear to be digging in despite their governor's entreaties. State Rep. Will Smith told The Huffington Post that though he supports the concept of an independent commission in theory, he's more in favor of a national approach -- the prevailing argument made by his party's leadership -- or even a compact made between the two states bordering the District of Columbia.
"Let’s say Maryland goes ahead but Virginia doesn’t -- that could offset the balance," he said.
But he also acknowledged the obvious meandering of his state's district boundaries.
"Everyone wants fair and proportional representation and everyone wants districts that look like the communities that represent,"Smith said. "Anyone looking at the districts can see that it's stretch as to how they are drawn."
To illustrate how many politicians' views on independent redistricting depend on whether they're a member of the party in the majority in their state, here's a little quiz.
Guess the party affiliation of these speakers -- the answers are at the bottom:
1) "My concern with the proposals we’ve seen is that [independent commissions] cede that responsibility to an unelected group. ... It’s a laudable goal, but not realistic."
2) “This has been the process since we started our government ... and it’s not that I think that it’s a great process, but when you have an independent group, they become political, too. Who are they representing? Who appoints them?”
3) “They’re trying to take politics out of an inherently political process, and I don’t think forming some, quote, independent commission will do that, because then the politics is in who gets appointed to the independent commission.”
4) “Redistricting should be nonpartisan. ... I support reforms that will take the politics out of the process.”
5) "Fair elections and a healthy and strong, competitive two-party system have been nearly impossible in our state. ... Gerrymandering is a form of political subterfuge that stifles real political debate and deprives citizens of meaningful choices.”