Creative races have become a fad world-wide. Over the weekend, Maryland’s third congressional district served as the course for yet another: the Gerrymander Meander. About 20 people ran, biked, kayaked and motor-boated a relay that traced the district, for a combined 225 miles.
Maryland has eight Congressional representatives, and as usual, none of them is facing a tough re-election challenge this year. Many blame the lack of competitiveness on gerrymandering - the art of drawing districts to favor the party in power. Maryland’s third congressional district has a national reputation for its convoluted shape. It’s often compared to a Rorschach test.
"To me [the district] looks kind of dragon-like. Or maybe a little like a pair of channel-lock wrenches,” said Tom deKornfeld of the Annapolis Striders running club. “It certainly doesn’t look like a political boundary to me.”
The third district has tentacles in Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel Counties and Baltimore City. deKornfeld handled the logistics of the event; designing the course took him ten months.
How Districting Works Now
Other districts in Maryland and elsewhere are also convoluted, as states redraw the border lines every ten years to reflect population changes. Here, the governor typically appoints a panel that includes the Senate president and the House speaker to recommend changes to the district lines. In Maryland, those positions are typically held by Democrats. In states where Republicans hold the top state offices, they craft election maps that favor their party.
Nancy Soreng is a former state president of the League of Women voters, one of the groups that sponsored the race. She said Maryland’s 2012 redistricting process offered little chance for citizen participation. “They did go around the state and get public input, but it was before the map was actually made,” she said. ”The public didn’t have a chance to comment on what they perceived as the fairness of the districts until the very last moment."
The new lines survived a constitutional challenge, although the federal judge called the third district a “broken-winged pterodactyl.” And voters approved the lines in a 2012 referendum.
The map was primarily designed to pose a strong challenge to Republican Roscoe Bartlett by including a new batch of Montgomery County voters in his Western Maryland district. But the party’s favored Democrat got ousted in the primary by newcomer John Delaney, who went on to win Bartlett’s seat. Delaney admitted that he did benefit from the new district, although he he said he was not “part and parcel of the redistricting process and all the problems I observed with it.”
Over the summer, Delaney introduced federal legislation that would order a study of national redistricting standards, make Election Day a holiday and mandate open primaries for House seats, so the top two vote-getters would face off in the general election.
John Sarbanes (D), who represents Maryland’s third district, said in an email, “In Congress, I have worked with colleagues to advance a comprehensive proposal that would require the creation of independent state commissions for redistricting.”
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel of Common Cause Maryland, another sponsor of the event, said a key goal of the race was to call attention to what state officials can do. At the race’s start in Hampden on Friday morning, she said the time is now. “We’ve got new legislators coming in, we’ll have a new governor taking office…to look at this problem in a new way,” she said. “We’re very optimistic that we can come up with some real solutions to fix this process and have a change in place before we start drawing maps again. Once we start drawing the maps, it’s too late to fix it.”
Challenges to Reform
The power structure here – and in many states – would have to enact the very change that might reduce their party’s influence. This means that Common Cause and others will need the support of voters. But that’s not easy, either. Redistricting reform is a wonky subject. On Friday night, about thirty minutes before the runners arrived at the corner of Aliceanna and Boston Streets in Baltimore’s Fell’s Point, 27-year-old Steve Caperna of Canton rode by on his bike. When asked about gerrymandering, he said that “it’s something that’s kind of hard to know about unless you’re really tuned in…You assume it’s there all the time.”
There has been increased national attention to redistricting reform in recent years, however. California’s new independent commission system places strict limits on who can be on the panel that draws the lines. Both Delaney and Bevan-Dangel support that kind of system for Maryland. California’s districts have only gone through one election cycle. That’s not enough time to know how it affects representation, according to several experts.
Minority representation is also a concern. Smooth, compact districts are not necessarily the fairest ones, says Allison Riggs, staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The shape of districts don’t tell the whole story, or can’t be used to say that’s a good district, that’s a bad district,” she said.
A lot of people blame gerrymandered, safe seats for political polarization in Washington. But political scientist Nolan McCarty of Princeton University says Congressional gridlock won’t be solved with new districts. “Most of polarization we see is caused by the fact that Democrats and Republicans represent very similar districts in very divergent ways," he said. "We observe extraordinary amounts of polarization in the United States Senate, which of course is not gerrymandered.”
After passing through Howard County and Montgomery County on Friday night and into Saturday morning (“I have never known darkness like that…It was hallucinogenic,” said Christian Zazzali of Annapolis after a biking leg), the team entered Anne Arundel County. They took a break Saturday night and regrouped Sunday morning to run the last 14 miles to the State House in Annapolis. At the closing rally, the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor sent spokesmen and the Libertarian candidate arrived in person. They each accepted a petition from the runners.
Bevan-Dangel saw their presence as a positive step. ”Just getting us all on the same page…that this is broken and an independent commission is the solution, that’s a huge place to start from,” she said. “Now we gotta figure out how we make the change start in Maryland and not DC.”
And they won’t even have to run 225 miles to do it.