Gerrymandering Under Attack in Maryland and Illinois

July 15, 2016

A Test for Partisan Gerrymandering in Maryland

A challenge to Maryland’s widely criticized 2011 congressional map got a hearing in federal court on Tuesday, when a panel of three federal judges heard argument in Shapiro v. McManus. The question before the court is whether the Maryland voters challenging the map have offered a sufficiently workable theory of partisan gerrymandering or whether the case should be dismissed without a trial.

The plaintiffs’ claims in the case focus on the constitutionality of Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, arguing that the state’s redistricting scheme violated the First Amendment because it deliberately targeted and punished voters who supported Republican candidates.

The defendants, Maryland election officials, contend that the plaintiffs haven’t provided the type of workable standard for evaluating partisan gerrymandering claims needed for a court to determine when a district map crosses the line into unconstitutional territory. They also argue that the map does nothing to burden plaintiff’s First Amendment rights since they can still vote and participate in the political process.

During the hearing, the judges quickly spit between the two sides. Judge James Bredar — who previously dismissed the suit on procedural grounds before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his decision — reiterated concerns that courts are ill-equipped to deal with the political considerations that accompany redistricting cases. On the other side, plaintiffs found a “highly sympathetic ear” in Judge Paul Niemeyer, who said, “it’s hard not to say [that vote dilution] was going on here.” However, the third judge, Judge George Russell III, asked fewer questions and gave less indication of how he was leaning.

Before adjourning, Judge Niemeyer highlighted the difficulties in deciding this case and acknowledged that the decision would likely go before the Supreme Court, regardless of how they ruled.

For more information about the case from the Brennan Center’s Tom Wolf, click here.

Critical Reform in Illinois under Dispute

Illinois voters could have a historic opportunity to reshape the state’s redistricting process at the polls this November. A proposed ballot initiative would create an 11-member redistricting commission for state legislative districts. The constitutional amendment would also implement a strong set of rules governing how maps are drawn, banning partisan gerrymandering and adding protections for racial and language minorities, political subdivisions, and communities of shared social or economic interests.

Independent Maps, the nonprofit group driving the ballot initiative, mounted a year-long drive to get the amendment on the ballot, collecting nearly 600,000 signatures from voters all across Illinois. That’s nearly twice the amount of signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot. On June 13, the Board unanimously approved the amendment, giving a key win to Independent Maps.

However, the amendment still faces a potential big obstacle. At a hearing in late June, lawyers for the Illinois Democratic Party argued that redistricting is not directly related to the structure or procedure of the Illinois General Assembly, and therefore that the proposed amendment falls outside the scope of ballot initiatives permitted under the Illinois constitution. A ruling in the case is expected by July 21.

The Brennan Center’s Eric Petry has more analysis of the Independent Maps Amendment here.

Other News and Analysis

  • A ruling in the Wisconsin partisan gerrymandering case, Whitford v. Nichol, is expected this summer or fall and could have significant implications for redistricting in states like Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. It is “the most significant gerrymandering challenge in 30 years,” says Michael Li. “This lawsuit could be a rare opportunity to contest unfair redistricting. It comes at a time when both the Supreme Court and the public are aware of the dysfunctionality of our legislative bodies.”
  • Two professors at the London School of Economics released a paper finding that redistricting leads to greater campaign contributions from donors who live outside the candidate’s district, while candidates from districts with stable boundaries receive more donations from within their district.
  • Professors Sam Wang and Mark Tengi at Princeton University recently launched an online “partisan gerrymandering calculator” that detects whether a district plan constitutes a partisan gerrymander. The website functionalizes the partisan gerrymandering theory Wang forwards in his award-winning paper.
  • The Supreme Court agreed to review racial gerrymandering cases from North Carolina and Virginia. Each could clarify how much consideration of race is permissible when legislatures or other bodies redraw district lines.
  • A proposed ballot to use an independent panel for redistricting in Colorado was rejected by the state’s Supreme Court. The court ruled 4-3 that Colorado’s ballot proposal was improperly worded and rejected a ballot measure that sought to change how districts for the state legislature are drawn.
  • At the end of June, the U.S. Census Bureau released its proposal on residence guidelines for the 2020 Census. The Bureau decided it would maintain the current practice of counting incarcerated persons as “residents” of prison instead of their home communities, despite great public input to the contrary.  The Prison Policy Initiative and other advocacy organizations encourage those who are interested in revising this proposal to submit comments to the Bureau by the August 1 deadline.  
  • Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) outlined a series of reforms around voting rights, redistricting, campaign financing, and technology in order to improve public trust in government. Hoyer has advocated for redistricting procedures that prevent politicians from redrawing their own districts, suggesting that “national redistricting standards takes partisanship out of the equation.”
  • The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert reviewed a new book on redistricting by David Daley, analyzing the impact the Republican-led Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) had on a number of states in the 2010 election and the redistricting cycle that followed. 
  • Common Cause announced the winners of its second annual Gerrymander Standard Writing Competition. First place was awarded to Wendy Tam Tao and Yan Y. Liu of the University of Illinois. Sam Wang of Princeton University won second place, and Ted Arrington, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, took third place.