After the 2010 Tea-Party-fueled Republican takeover of the House, the Democratic Party was desperate to regain the congressional seats they’d lost in 2012. Democrats in the deep-blue state of Maryland had a rare opportunity.
If they got creative with the upcoming redistricting of the state, they could likely flip a congressional seat from red to blue. They succeeded. But the result was what many have called the most blatantly gerrymandered congressional district map in the entire country.
Operating in a deep blue state, Maryland’s Democratic Party has long utilized the redistricting process as a thinly veiled political maneuver to entrench its power. In 2011, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is now vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, led that partisan gerrymandering. With the 2016 race ramping up, his gubernatorial tenure will inevitably come under greater scrutiny, and his responsibility for an excessively gerrymandered state could leave him open to be portrayed as a politician who puts party interests over voters.
By redrawing a traditionally Republican seat in Western Maryland to include parts of the traditionally liberal Montgomery County, O’Malley helped Democrat John Delaney knock out longtime Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett from his 6th District post, increasing the congressional delegation’s Democratic majority from 6-2 to 7-1.
That was hardly the only gerrymandered district in the state though. One judge famously called the state’s 3rd Congressional District “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the State.” Donna Edwards describes her 4th District as being “shaped like earmuffs.”
In a nationwide study of redistricting in 2010, Maryland’s congressional districts were ranked dead last in the nation in terms of compactness. Its state legislative districts were among the ten worst, as well.
Ahead of the 2012 elections, The Washington Post editorial board railed against the map, saying that “Democratic Party leaders went overboard in carving up territory so that Democratic votes would be deployed to maximum advantage, even if it meant stitching them into districts resembling violently spilled coffee.”
They focused their wrath most harshly on Governor Martin O’Malley, who oversaw the redistricting process. “O’Malley was among the chief authors of this disgrace. Partisan affiliation notwithstanding, anyone with a remote interest in good government, Republican or Democrat, can only be appalled by the handiwork of Gov. Gerrymander and his hyperpartisan assistant draftsmen.”
To be fair, O’Malley didn’t single-handedly gerrymander the state—such egregiously drawn districts like the “broken-winged pterodactyl” was the handiwork of Democratic Governor Parris Glendening in the early 2000s. However, O’Malley upheld the legacy of that map—and then some.
“Instead of responding to the state’s interest, he took a bad map and made it even worse,” says Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and noted expert in Maryland politics. The O’Malley campaign declined to comment on the governor’s redistricting map.
O’Malley is now vying for the Democratic nomination for president and is struggling to gain a foothold to the left of Hillary Clinton—a space that is currently occupied by Bernie Sanders, so far leaving little room for O’Malley.
The timing of O’Malley’s redistricting in 2011 ran up against national political headwinds, Eberly says. “There was tremendous pressure for Democratic governors wherever they could to try to even things out.”
The Maryland governor wields a tremendous amount of power in the redistricting process. He decides who is appointed to the redistricting advisory committee, which is typically made up of State Senate and House leadership and three others of the governor’s choosing. Public hearings are held, but usually before there’s a definitive map drawn. The actual redrawing is done behind closed doors and if, as in O’Malley’s case, the governor is a Democrat the legislature will rubber stamp the map. For Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards, ownership of the map is irrefutable.
“Whoever is governor at the time of redistricting owns the map. [This] map is O’Malley’s,” Edwards told The Prospect.
When the new congressional map was unveiled in 2011, it quickly drew the ire of a wide spectrum of groups. Republicans saw it as further entrenchment of the Democrats’ political power in the state. Minority groups saw it as a shameless dilution of voting power for the state’s communities of color. Good government advocates saw it as just the latest sign of the need for redistricting reform. Since the early 2000s, the map has been challenged numerous times in the courts for numerous reasons. But judges have dismissed every case, which many blame on the lack of constitutional requirements on redistricting.
Most recently, a U.S. District Court tossed out a case aimed specifically at O’Malley and the state legislature’s gerrymandering of the 6th District in Western Maryland. In that case, voters argued that their right to free speech was violated and that they were discriminated against based on political affiliation. Government watchdog groups like Common Cause and Campaign Legal Center are pushing for the Supreme Court to overturn the ruling.
“The Supreme Court has thus far failed to articulate a standard for when excessive, blatant partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution, Campaign Legal Center Executive Director J. Gerald Hebert said in a statement. “This case gives the conservatives on the high Court an opportunity to back up their First Amendment jurisprudence with language that articulates why political gerrymandering cases like this infringes First Amendment rights.”
Similarly, a group of African-American Marylanders brought a case against the state’s 2002 map rendering, contending that the redistricting plan blatantly violated their rights by diluting their voting strength and intentionally discriminating against black voters. A federal court ultimately dismissed the case, saying that there was not sufficient proof that the map was specifically motivated to move around black voters and not just Democratic voters (of which blacks are the majority in the state). However, in the opinion the three-judge panel agreed that the map was highly gerrymandered (just not illegally).
Both political parties have been accused of racial gerrymandering over the years. Republican states will pack minority voters into as few districts as possible; Democratic states will try to spread out communities of color to as many districts as possible.
Critics of O’Malley say that he was in a unique position to change the practice of gerrymandering in the state. “Being a Democrat in a Democratic state, O’Malley could have depoliticized it at any point,” says Stella Rouse, a political scientist at the University of Maryland. “He not only continued the process, but I would argue he made it more political.”
Maryland’s current governor, Republican Larry Hogan, created a commission to explore how to reform the state’s redistricting process and he hopes to put a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot. The political likelihood of that happening with a Democratic statehouse in power is slim. "It's not going to happen," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller told The Baltimore Sun.
While reform advocates have come out in support of Hogan’s plan, most are in agreement that there’s no political pathway forward. But there likely would have been one if O’Malley had taken action. “The political will has to come from the least likely source—Democrats,” Rouse says.
But history shows that those in power typically don’t willingly give that power up. “Ultimately it's gonna require a huge outcry from the public to make anything happen,” League of Women Voters’ Nancy Soreng says.
Meanwhile on the presidential campaign trail, it doesn’t seem like the seat O’Malley helped flip in Congress has curried him any tangible favor with national party leaders. For instance, his call for more Democratic primary debates has so far fallen on deaf ears.
It remains to be seen whether his political legacy of gerrymandering in Maryland will come back to haunt him. Gerrymandering reform is not a headline-grabbing issue, and most politicians are hesitant to attack other politicians on it because they are often culpable, too.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not respond to a request for her position on redistricting reform. In response to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Arizona’s independent redistricting commission, Bernie Sanders said, “When congressional districts are controlled by partisanship it is bad for voters and our democracy. Allowing nonpartisan commissions to draw district lines will help combat the hyper-partisan gerrymandering we have seen in some states.”
For O’Malley, his less-than-stellar record on gerrymandering as governor may hurt him in Maryland more than in the primaries. “[His legacy] should be that he’s no different than any other party politician trying to maximize the advantage for his party machine,” Rouse says. “Whether that actually becomes his legacy remains to be seen.