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Gerrymandering -- the practice of drawing districts to benefit one political party over another or to protect an incumbent -- has a long history in the U.S. Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield reports on reform efforts in Maryland, where one district has been called a “broken-winged pterodactyl,” and in North Carolina, where litigation is challenging partisan redistricting.
For Dr. Mark Plaster, it's another day on the road, racking up mile after mile on a bus that's seen better days.
We've worn it out. I mean we've put a lot of miles on it. All this upholstery that's all beat up right now used to be pristine.
But Plaster isn't making rounds as the emergency room doctor he was, he's running for congress as the Republican nominee in a Maryland district whose shape seems inspired not by geography, but by pure partisan politics.
Was this district drawn that way just because a couple of guys got drunk, or is there a political motivation to this?
It's pretty clear that it was politically motivated. The idea was to hand a district to the Democratic candidate. The state pretty much is about even, roughly. Maybe a slight advantage for Democrats in registration. But by drawing it the way they have, it now is 7-1 in representation in the House.
What Plaster is talking about is called "gerrymandering"—the art of drawing districts to put as many of your voters together—or, more often, to make sure the other party's voters are broken up and scattered.
It gets its name from a nineteenth century politician named Elbridge Gerry. As governor of Massachusetts, he helped shape a congressional district so blatantly one-sided that one critic said it looked like a salamander. "No, another replied, a Gerry-mander."
Today, state legislatures across the country, the majority of them Republican, draw congressional district lines, something required with every new census every ten years to maximize their party's advantage.
That had particular impact after Republicans dominated the 2010 midterm elections, taking control of both legislative chambers in 25 states, and governorships in 29 states.
DAVID ROHDE, DUKE UNIVERSITY:
2010 was a real benchmark because it produced so many states in which the Republicans completely controlled the process.
David Rohde is a political scientist at Duke University in North Carolina, one of the states where Republicans won control of the state legislature.
Gerrymandering has a larger impact on bigger states. That is, the more the population, the more ways you can divide it up, the more seats you have to distribute. So the Republicans were fortunate enough to gain control of a number of large states in 2010 where they had not controlled redistricting before.
In Pennsylvania, for example, 44 percent of the voters chose Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives in 2014. But 13 of the 18 districts – more than two-thirds – are represented by Republicans.
In Ohio, about 40 percent of the voters chose democratic candidates for the House of Representatives, but 12 out of 16 seats – three-quarters of them – are represented by republicans.
In Maryland, which was controlled by Democrats in 2010, the partisan tilt is, unsurprisingly, reversed.
If you want an example of gerrymandering at its most creative, come here to Maryland's 3rd congressional district. So attenuated, so detached, that to get from one end of the district to the other you would need a tank full of gas, or a boat.
The district's perimeter runs about 225 miles, with a shape described by one federal judge as "a broken-winged pterodactyl lying prostrate." Its body is broken up by four other congressional districts, making campaigning a logistical nightmare.
Indeed, so disconnected is the 3rd that protesters staged a "gerrymander meander," showing just how sprawling it is.
It's not so much going through other districts as much as how different the people are in each one of those areas. Annapolis is a very military town, somewhat conservative. It goes all the way up to Pikesville, which is a Jewish community. It incorporates Gibson Island, which is the ultra-rich waterfront. It involves the inner harbor, what I call the hipsters of Federal Hill. It's very, very different. And those folks have a tendency to not know each other, nor do they have a lot of issues in common, which makes it difficult.
GOV. LARRY HOGAN, R-MARYLAND (August 2015):
Maryland has been singled out for one of the most gerrymandered districts in the entire country. This is not a distinction we should be proud of.
Larry Hogan, a moderate republican, was elected governor in 2014, and had made redistricting a major campaign issue.
Last year, the governor created a commission that looked at the issue, it recommended Maryland join California, Arizona, Idaho and Washington state in taking the power to draw these lines away from the legislature and putting it into the hands of an independent commission.
STATE SEN. JOAN CARTER CONWAY, D-MARYLAND:
They're never going to reach them by that date…
Democrat Joan Carter Conway, a Maryland state senator for 19 years, served on the panel that studied the issue. Legislation that would have given a commission power to draw legislative lines in the future failed.
JOAN CARTER CONWAY:
In the state of Maryland today, we are Democratic, and we have a process in terms of how we redistrict, and at this juncture we don't see any errors or flaw in it.
Senator Conway says she was unwilling for her state to change its pro-democratic tilt, while far more states draw their districts lines to benefit republicans.
I don't think Maryland should be in a position to change unless it's a national change. It's very partisan. The Democrats have been accused of drawing lines to help them. The Republicans draw the lines to help them.
She could well be thinking of North Carolina, which holds the distinction of being one of the other most gerrymandered states in the union. Though Republicans won a 56 percent statewide majority of votes for congress in 2014, they hold a 10-3 majority in the delegation.
For Republican state representative David Lewis, who co-chaired the state's committee on congressional redistricting. It's simply impossible to take partisanship out of the process.
STATE REP. DAVID LEWIS, R-NORTH CAROLINA:
I think it's more honest and upfront to say that as a Republican I'm going to follow the law, I'm going to follow the rules of the law, and if there is a discretionary decision to be made I will make it from my partisan point of view.
The Supreme Court has long told states they must draw lines that provide for equal populations—"one person, one vote"—and since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act has looked with suspicion on racially motivated lines. But as a rule, the court has permitted redistricting with a partisan purpose.
That's a point that Lewis made in a remarkable display of candor on the state house floor back in February: the lines were drawn — in part, he said — to give Republicans the biggest possible benefit.
DAVID LEWIS (February 19, 2016):
A further criteria was partisan advantage. We believe that this map will produce an opportunity to elect 10 Republican members of Congress."
And as for those independent commissions, Lewis sees them as politically motivated by Democrats.
I think it's great politics. If I felt there were any way in the world that I could stand before my constituents and say, "I believe that it's possible to come up with a group of people who have no political bias whatsoever who will simply sit down in a room and magically create districts," I'd be behind it. I'd be behind it 100 percent. But those people don't exist.
It's a rare point of agreement with Democrat Joan Carter Conway in Maryland.
The concept is a marvelous concept. And I will not sit here and say I disagree with the independent commission. The problem then becomes, who are you considering independent?
But the Supreme Court has warned against too much partisanship. In a 2004 concurring opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote "partisan gerrymanders… are incompatible with democratic principles."
The Supreme Court has said that this is a political question and that legislatures are allowed, expected to try to extract advantage, but justices have also said- some justices disagreed with that, but other justices say, "yes, that's true, but you can go too far."
That was Kennedy, among others. So the question is, "What's too far? It's sort of Potter Stewart's old obscenity definition: "I'll know it when I see it."
For Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic election law attorney advising the Hillary Clinton campaign, North Carolina has clearly gone too far.
MARC ELIAS, PERKINS COIE:
You don't necessarily need to worry about where you draw the line for know it when you see it, because if ever there were a place where we knew it was 100 percent, it was in North Carolina.
Elias sued the state in 2013, arguing the congressional lines unconstitutionally diluted African-American voting strength.
And then earlier this year, he argued the replacement map was also unconstitutional. Why? Because he said it was "a bald partisan gerrymander."
The states need to have meaningful elections, and if you create a system in which the votes for Congress are simply meaningless because the incumbent electors, the incumbent members have essentially drawn districts that they can never be defeated; query whether or not you even have a republican form of government.
One of the assertions of Rep. Lewis is, "There's no such thing as a nonpartisan person." He says you can't take politics out of politics…
The fact that you may never be able to find someone who is entirely nonpartisan isn't really an- isn't really an excuse for leaving it in the hands of a legislature in North Carolina that said we're going to draw the map 100 percent based on partisanship
In addition to the challenges in North Carolina, cases in Maryland and Wisconsin challenging partisan redistricting are all making their way through the courts.
That's too late to help Dr. Mark Plaster in his underdog campaign.
After hopscotching Maryland highways for 45 minutes, in and out of the 3rd congressional district, we returned to the area he hopes to represent.
We've made this problem. It just doesn't need to be. There are enough people to form a congressional district within 20 minutes of where we started. But instead we have to travel an hour and a half this way, an hour and a half that way, an hour and a half that way. And it's by design.
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Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
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