Maryland Democrats Still Split Over Gerrymandering after Supreme Court Punts

Maryland Democrats Still Split Over Gerrymandering after Supreme Court Punts

While the Texas gerrymandering decision commanded the country’s attention, the Supreme Court also dodged partisan gerrymandering questions in the Maryland case, Benisek v. Lamone. But Maryland’s anti-gerrymandering advocates weren’t surprised by the decision to send Benisek back to a lower court. Instead, voting rights advocates stayed focused on their ongoing efforts  to end the democracy-eroding practice by the 2021 redistricting cycle.

Benisek is unusual. In many of the cases that come before the courts, Republicans are the gerrymandering culprits. But Maryland’s Sixth Congressional District was rigged to be blue. Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley appointed the members of the redistricting committee and oversaw the 2011 redistricting effort. So in 2012, even though nearly 40 percent of the state’s registered voters are Republicans, seven out of eight seats in the House were filled by Democrats. (O’Malley was later deposed by attorneys in the Benisek case over his actions.)

But Republicans aren’t the only group contesting Democratic gerrymanders. Democrats have also taken them on. A bipartisan group of Maryland voters including Democrat Steven Shapiro, an engineer who moved into law, also sought relief from the high court over the issues presented by redistricting in the Sixth Congressional District (The high court ruled on narrower issues in a 2015 decision, Shapiro v. McManus, and took up the weightier constitutional matters in Benisek.)

These developments leave Maryland Democrats divided between those politicians who want to maintain the status quo, because gerrymandering keeps their seats safe, and others who want a system that does not skew district lines to favor one party over another.

“The majority party isn’t interested in losing control,” Ashley Oleson, administrative director of League of Women Voters of Maryland tells the Prospect. Similarly, Damon Effingham, acting director of Common Cause Maryland, explains that Maryland Democratic leaders defensively claim that they are “just evening the score a little bit”, as one of the few blue states that gerrymanders in a sea of red states that do. Effingham also explained that some legislators defend gerrymandering as “a point of leverage”, in that maybe by having blue gerrymandered state, it can be used to help “mutually disarm” all the red gerrymandered states. 

However, both Effingham and Oleson doubt that any significant changes will occur in time for the midterms. Their next big hurdle is the 2021 congressional redistricting process that will occur after the 2020 census.