Even in today's era of political polarization, there should be a few things we can all agree on. Puppies are cute. Arsenic is bad. Broccoli is the devil's food. And letting politicians draw uncompetitive districts for their own benefit is bad for democracy.
Members of both parties have voiced support for taking partisanship out of the process of drawing congressional and legislative districts. And yet, instead of being the rare issue where both parties are eager to get something done, redistricting reform has proven nearly impossible to implement. The latest example of why comes from the great state of Maryland. Republican Governor Larry Hogan has made an independent redistricting commission one of his top priorities. The Democratic legislature passed a redistricting reform bill with strong majorities. But, this week, Hogan vetoed the measure.
The reason is pure self-interest. The Democratic bill would have only switched Maryland's redistricting process to an independent commission if five nearby states did so first; Hogan, contending that this will never happen, is holding out for a bill that would have Maryland unilaterally disarm. That too will never happen. While Democrats may support nonpartisan redistricting in the abstract, Maryland Democrats correctly see it as a threat to their power. Partisan redistricting always favors the dominant party, and a state as blue as Maryland gives Democrats the opportunity to creatively mold several more Democratic seats in Congress than they are entitled to. They’ve done just that, as 87.5% of Maryland’s congressional delegation (seven of eight) are Democrats despite the party receiving just 60.4% of the combined statewide vote in the last round of congressional elections.
Maryland Democrats aren’t alone in this cartographical trickery. Most states gerrymander their districts, to varying degrees of blatancy, including several Republican-controlled states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Texas. Like an arms race in an electoral cold war, neither side is going to give up its advantage until the other one does. And so reform languishes.
The Democratic bill hints at a solution but doesn't go far enough. Would-be redistricting reformers can't just sit back waiting for other states to take action on their own; they have to make a deal. Maryland’s gerrymandering problem won’t be solved in Annapolis. In fact, the key to getting fair districts in the Old Line State actually lies in Indiana.
If the Maryland Legislature is ever going to agree to an independent redistricting commission, Hogan needs to strike a deal with another state legislature—a Republican one—first. If Maryland and a red state both agree to stop gerrymandering, the Republican gain in Maryland and the Democratic gain in the other state would cancel each other out—but elections in both states would be more fair. And as it turns out, Indiana is the perfect partner in such a compact.
Like Maryland Democrats, Indiana Republicans have succeeded at gerrymandering their home state. Although the GOP won only 54% of the congressional popular vote in Indiana in 2016, the party controls 78% of the congressional delegation—seven out of nine seats. Reformers in Indiana have likewise tried to implement an independent redistricting commission, getting a bill through the Indiana State House in 2014. But while the appetite was there, the effort was also eventually killed by entrenched interests. Indiana is also comparable in size to Maryland, making the two states a fair trade. If Indiana switched to an independent redistricting commission, it would likely elect five Republicans and four Democrats. That net loss of two Republicans would balance out the two-seat gain that the GOP would probably see under a fair congressional map in Maryland.
Indiana is the best option on a short list of possible partners for Maryland. Wisconsin and Missouri each seats eight representatives—an even more precise match for Maryland—but Missouri already uses a hybrid redistricting system of legislators plus a commission. Wisconsin Republicans, meanwhile, are unlikely to go along since they risk losing control of this blue-tinged state altogether. Tennessee is another possible choice, with its Hoosier-esque 7–2 Republican congressional delegation, but it is more Republican than Maryland is Democratic.
There are still some obstacles faced by such a “grand bargain” between states. First, congressional incumbents in danger of losing their safe seats would certainly pressure their legislators to vote against the plan. In addition, redistricting affects not only the composition of Congress, but also state legislatures themselves; Maryland Democrats and Indiana Republicans would not be enthusiastic about the prospect of reducing their majorities. Although she might regard the swap of congressional seats as equitable, the average Maryland Democrat probably doesn’t care enough about Indiana that she values a State Senate seat there as highly as one back home. And because the plan would redraw existing legislative districts, there is the reality that some of the people asked to vote for this arrangement would lose their seats as a direct result.
Reformers would still have to lobby lawmakers hard to look past these issues, but they are not the main reason redistricting reform has stalled in Maryland and in state houses across the nation. Reformers cannot expect to make progress asking the majority party to give up leverage without getting anything in return. Perhaps soon the many states failing to end gerrymandering on their own will discover the elegant solution of looking to each other for help.