When asked about my favorite president, I usually choose George Washington. Not just because he crossed the freezing Delaware River, not because he cunningly defeated the British at Yorktown, not only because he set a precedent of dignity and class as our first president. I admire him most for what he did not do: keep power for himself. Time after time, he walked away from the power our fledgling country was so willing to give him, by resigning his military commission at the State House here in Annapolis in 1783, by refusing to be king or emperor, and by declining to run for a third term in 1796. He was a Republican in the original meaning of the word, believing in the power of the people as the source of government and in putting the country well ahead of partisan politics.
Fast forward 223 years. On June 27, the U.S. Supreme Court, presented with what is universally recognized as extreme partisan gerrymandering, in a 5-4 decision in companion cases Rucho v. Common Cause from North Carolina and Maryland's Lamone v. Benisek, not only refused to take any action in gerrymandering cases, but closed the door left open in last year's Gill v. Whitford. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, ruled that partisan gerrymandering presents a political question beyond the power of federal courts. The court further held that the courts lack the authority to apportion political power, which redrawing maps might require, and that there was no manageable test for determining when partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution.
Justice Elena Kagan penned a fiery dissent. In a series of staccato bursts, she lambasted the majority for its failure to recognize the dilution of voters' rights as violating constitutional rights, to check politicians’ ability to cherry-pick voters to ensure their re-election, and to try hard enough to articulate a standard to prevent the worst of gerrymandering abuses. Quoting a brief filed by a bipartisan group of current and former congresspersons, Kagan captured the evil of partisan gerrymandering, that “artificially drawn districts shift influence from swing voters to party-base voters who participate in primaries; make bipartisanship and pragmatic compromise politically difficult or impossible; and drive voters away from an ever more dysfunctional political process … creating a legislative environment that is both 'toxic' and 'tribal' … Gerrymandering in short helps create the polarized political system that so many Americans loathe.”
Gerrymandering doesn’t just affect America and Maryland; it affects you. Close to the geographic center of Anne Arundel County, Severna Park is a discrete community with its own high school, Independence Day parade, library and newspaper, but gerrymandering divides and contains it politically. As Greater Severna Park Council President Maureen Carr-York said, “[We have] no representation in Congress because we are not treated as an important enough part of anyone’s district.”
Before the advent of gerrymandering software, in the 1970s and 1980s, Severna Park was part of a congressional district that encompassed Anne Arundel and southern Prince George’s counties, and in the 1990s, it was expanded to include southern Maryland. Beginning in the early 2000s, Anne Arundel County was chopped up into four congressional districts, with Severna Park divided in two, part in the 1st district with much of the Eastern Shore represented initially by moderate Republican Wayne Gilchrest, and part in the 3rd district, with pieces of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties, and represented by Democrat Ben Cardin from Baltimore. The 2012 map brought more abuses. While Severna Park now is mostly within a congressional district, it was moved into District 4, which is comprised largely of Prince Georges County and has been represented by Prince Georges’ County Democrats Donna Edwards and Anthony Brown.
Anne Arundel County itself is again drawn into four congressional districts, but not the same four, and all of which have consistently elected Democrat congresspersons when our county has often voted Republican overall. At the very least, the jockeying around causes confusion. As Betty Winkelmeyer Wells, whose father founded the Severna Park Chamber of Commerce, put it, “You can’t figure out who is running where.” As longtime Severna Park resident Doug Nichols recently wrote me, “Anne Arundel County has unique problems to solve and … mixing Anne Arundel County into multiple congressional districts has misplaced the services its residents need.”
Given the decades that it usually takes to turn the judicial tide in the Supreme Court (think the 58 years between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education regarding public education for African Americans), I have little reason to hope for Supreme Court intervention on political gerrymandering in my lifetime. One glimmer of hope remaining is Chief Justice Roberts' reminder that states can act to limit partisan gerrymandering. Several states have enacted legislation or amended their state constitutions with a purpose to limit partisan gerrymandering. Kagan pointed out the limits of this approach, saying, “Politicians who benefit from partisan gerrymandering are unlikely to change partisan gerrymandering. And because those politicians maintain themselves in office through partisan gerrymandering, the chances of legislative reform are slight.”
OK, Justice Kagan: challenge accepted. Governor Larry Hogan has introduced anti-gerrymandering legislation for the past four years, to set up a nonpartisan commission to draw lines. I have introduced legislation for the past two years for Maryland congressional district lines to be formed like our state legislative lines - compactly and with regard for natural and political boundaries. All this legislation has been killed in committee, victims of partisan politics.
Let's be George Washingtons. I call on all Maryland legislators to put partisan politics aside, look past personal ambition and fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence, that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Let's pass anti-gerrymandering legislation and enfranchise all Marylanders.