Maryland’s infamously contorted congressional district map was challenged in federal court on Tuesday by an American University law student who says the boundaries violate the First Amendment rights of Republican voters. The suit was thrown out by a federal judge in 2014, a decision upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. But the Supreme Court ruled in December that plaintiff Stephen Shapiro was improperly denied a hearing before a three-judge panel. He got his day in court in Baltimore on Tuesday, along with plaintiffs in two other lawsuits challenging Maryland’s 2011 redistricting. Shapiro questions the legality of gerrymandered boundaries approved by Democratic state lawmakers to ensure that seven of Maryland’s eight congressional seats would be under their party’s control.
The Democrats are going on the offensive to make voting easier. The draft language in the party’s 2016 platform is much stronger than it was in 2012, and that’s mostly good for democracy. The party’s shift from its defensive crouch started in the states, with the adoption of automatic-voter registration rules in Oregon, California, West Virginia, Connecticut, Vermont and Illinois. Hillary Clinton endorsed these efforts last summer, and now the national Democratic platform is being written accordingly. The smorgasbord of measures includes an expected call to restore Voting Rights Act provisions that the Supreme Court weakened as well as a relatively new fight at the national party level for “voting rights for those who have served their sentences,” referring to former felons. Currently, many states delay restoring the vote to ex-felons, and some states have a lifetime ban.
The U.S. Supreme Court will review an appeal by North Carolina to maintain the remapping of its districts this fall – a plan previously described as a “blatant, unapologetic, partisan, gerrymander” that could disfranchise the state’s minority population. The court added the appeal to its calendar Monday. Its decision to address the redistricting plan comes just five months after a three-judge panel rejected a legal challenge filed by attorneys for David Harris of Durham and Christine Bowser of Mecklenburg County. Attorneys argue that remapping of state’s 1st and 12th congressional districts limits the state’s minority representation. Those districts are held by Democrat Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams, the state’s only two African-American congressional representatives.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether Republican lawmakers relied too heavily on race when they redrew North Carolina’s congressional districts to give the GOP a powerful advantage in the swing state. The justices will hear the case in the fall — almost certainly too late to affect November’s elections. But in the years ahead, it could impact partisan efforts to create electoral districts aimed at swaying the balance of power in Congress and in state legislatures. The Supreme Court could consider it together with a similar appeal from Virginia, where challengers say Republicans packed black voters into a dozen statehouse districts, strengthening GOP control of neighboring territories.
Sometime around October 20, 1788, Patrick Henry rode from his seventeen-hundred-acre farm in Prince Edward, Virginia, to a session of the General Assembly in Richmond. Henry is now famous for having declared, on the eve of the Revolution, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”—a phrase it’s doubtful that he ever uttered—but in the late seventeen-eighties he was best known as a leader of the Anti-Federalists. He and his faction had tried to sink the Constitution, only to be outmaneuvered by the likes of Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. When Henry arrived in the state capital, his adversaries assumed he would seek revenge. They just weren’t sure how. “He appears to be involved in gloomy mystery,” one of them reported. The Constitution had left it to state lawmakers to determine how elections should be held, and in Virginia the Anti-Federalists controlled the legislature. Knowing that his enemy Madison was planning a run for the House of Representatives, Henry set to work. First, he and his confederates resolved that Virginia’s congressmen would be elected from districts. (Several other states had chosen to elect their representatives on a statewide basis, a practice that persisted until Congress intervened, in 1842.) Next, they stipulated that each representative from Virginia would have to run from the district where he resided. Finally, they stuck in the shiv. They drew the Fifth District, around Madison’s home in the town of Orange, to include as many Anti-Federalists as possible.
They have nicknames like “the dead lizard,” ”the praying mantis” and “the upside-down elephant.” The odd-shaped legislative districts that dot many states are no coincidence. The jagged lines often have been carefully drawn by state lawmakers to benefit particular incumbents or political parties. The tactic, known as gerrymandering, is nearly as old as the country itself. It’s also a maneuver that can result in an underrepresentation of minorities in some legislatures. Across the U.S, minorities now comprise nearly two-fifths of the population, yet hold less than one-fifth of all legislative seats, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Congress and the National Conference of State Legislatures. Federal guidelines require that legislative districts are similar in population and not drawn to deny minorities a chance to elect the candidate of their choice. But racial gerrymandering can occur in a couple of ways: when minority communities are divided among multiple districts, thus diluting their voting strength; or when minorities are heavily packed into a single district, thus diminishing their likelihood of winning multiple seats.
Utah: How a Utah county silenced Native American voters — and how Navajos are fighting back | High Country News
To understand why Wilfred Jones wanted an ambulance, you have to understand where he lives. San Juan County, in southeastern Utah, is nearly as big as New Jersey but is home to fewer than 15,000 people. The lower third is part of the Navajo Nation and is almost entirely Ute and Navajo. The upper two-thirds are white and predominantly Mormon. Jones, a 61-year-old grandfather with jet-black hair and a diamond stud in each ear, lives in the lower third, five miles south of the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Montezuma Creek. It’s rough, rocky country, where bullet holes riddle the road signs and lonely pumpjacks ply oil from the earth. The nearest services are in Blanding, some 40 miles north. Sixteen years ago, when Jones joined the board of the Utah Navajo Health System, he realized his neighbors were dying because the closest ambulances — the county’s, in Blanding, and the tribe’s, in Kayenta, Arizona — were an hour away “on a good day.” So Jones asked the county commission if one of San Juan’s ambulances could be housed in a garage in Montezuma Creek. From there, it would take half the time to rush an elder suffering a heart attack to medical care.
Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court expanded the meaning of one of the most important civil rights laws in U.S. history — the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Among other things, the court prohibited a then-common practice among some states of spreading minorities across voting districts, leaving them too few in number in any given district to elect their preferred candidates. The practice became known as “racial gerrymandering.” The court’s solution required that states create majority-minority districts — districts in which the majority of the voting-age population belonged to a single minority. With voting that occurred largely along racial lines, these districts allowed minority voters to elect their candidates of choice. But a fascinating development occurred in the years since. These districts, rather than giving African Americans more political power, might have actually started to deprive them of it. Majority-minority districts, by concentrating the minority vote in certain districts, have the unintended consequence of diluting their influence elsewhere. Experts say some Republican legislatures have capitalized on this new reality, redistricting in their political favor under the guise of majority-minority districts.
Like British parliamentary elections in the 18th century, the Republican presidential primary in 2016 may be decided in rotten boroughs. While the rotten boroughs in Georgian England were the long since abandoned sites of medieval towns where aristocratic landowners could handpick members of parliament, the Republican rotten boroughs are vibrant, heavily populated urban areas in places like New York and Los Angeles. They just don’t have very many registered Republicans. The result of gerrymandered redistricting processes and the deep alienation of minority communities from the Republican party is that there are many congressional districts where registered Republicans are almost as rare as unicorns. Republican delegate apportionment rules in many states, however, mean that every congressional district receives three delegates to the convention, regardless of how many GOP voters live there. In contrast, the Democratic party’s formula for delegates is influenced by the number of votes cast for their presidential nominee in the past few elections in each district. Instead of seeking to represent every voter equally, this gives more weight to committed Democratic voters. And it means the ratio of voters to delegates is less unbalanced than it might be otherwise.
Editorials: Maryland can’t act alone to end gerrymandering | Rob Richie and Austin Plier/The Washington Post
Maryland is popularly recognized as one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, and at least four bills designed to curb gerrymandering were introduced this legislative session, including ones backed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and by legislative leaders. But one bill stood out as an innovative approach that could establish Maryland as a true reform leader. Change certainly is needed. Maryland’s obviously manipulated congressional districts have produced results that skew in favor of Democrats. Only one of eight seats is held by a Republican, and white male Democrats hold five seats in a state where they make up about a sixth of the voting population. No district is likely to be competitive in November. But if Maryland acts alone, it will exacerbate the national skew toward Republicans. FairVote projects that Democrats would need some 55 percent of the vote to win a House majority this year. In 2012, Democrats won the popular vote in House races, but Republicans still had a 33-seat advantage. Many have called for a national solution to gerrymandering, but Maryland does not have to wait. Legislators have a moral obligation to voters to find a state-based solution when one is available. Their best option is SB 762, the Potomac Compact for Fair Representation. Unlike other redistricting reform bills, the Potomac Compact would end a national standoff on redistricting reform by proposing an interstate compact that gives state negotiators the ability to use electoral systems to make such compacts work — for voters and for partisans.
Wisconsin: Judges hear arguments in gerrymandering lawsuit, decision to come later | Wisconsin State Journal
A panel of three federal judges heard arguments Wednesday on a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a group of Democrats who say that the 2011 redistricting of state legislative boundaries was an extreme and illegal partisan gerrymander. Lawyers for the state Department of Justice, which is defending the 2011 redistricting plan, argued that a plan put forth by the group fails to show that the redistricting plan was unconstitutional. No decisions were issued Wednesday, and federal Circuit Judge Kenneth Ripple, the senior judge on the panel, said the arguments and other material would be considered by the panel before it issues a written decision.
A federal judge ruled Monday that prisoners can’t be counted for population or in drawing up boundaries of voting districts in Florida, a decision that could have repercussions statewide. The decision was based on the drawing of district maps for county commission and school board seats in Jefferson County, located in northwest Florida. According to the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, the decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker marks the first time a federal court has issued such an opinion on “prison-based gerrymandering.” The ACLU and several Jefferson County residents filed the lawsuit after the county – which had a non-prison population of 13,604 in the 2010 census – counted 1,157 Jefferson Correctional Institute inmates in one district.
A local congressman sent an email four minutes after polls closed on Tuesday, and the message crystallizes the need for redistricting reform. U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski wasted no time celebrating victory on Election Day. The email to reporters at 7:04 p.m. from the representative for thousands of Southland residents seemed harmless on the surface. “I want to thank the people of the Third District for their support in the primary and their vote of confidence in my commonsense leadership,” Lipinski said. The six-term moderate Democrat scored 57,783 votes on Tuesday. The problem is that Lipinski faced no opponent in the Democratic primary, and he’s running uncontested in the November general election. Arthur Jones, the only Republican to file, was removed from ballots prior to the primary. Jones is a Holocaust denier who marched with Nazis in Chicago’s Marquette Park in 1978. Will County voters cast 631 write-in ballots for Republicans in the primary. This is the best candidate Republicans could find?
A federal court panel ruled late Friday that two of North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts were racially gerrymandered and must be redrawn within two weeks, sparking uncertainty about whether the March primary elections can proceed as planned. An order from a three-judge panel bars elections in North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts until new maps are approved. Challengers of North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting plan quickly praised the ruling, while legislators who helped design the maps said they were disappointed and promised a quick appeal. “This ruling by all three judges is a vindication of our challenge to the General Assembly of North Carolina writing racially biased ‘apartheid’ voting districts to disenfranchise the power of the African-vote,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter.
After the wave of Tea Party victories across the nation turned more state legislatures red in 2010, Republican lawmakers redistricted their states to the party’s benefit. In some cases, Democratic voters — often African-American — were packed into a small number of districts, diluting their political power. Not long ago, Shelby County, Alabama successfully challenged the section of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states and counties with a history of racial voting discrimination to submit any proposed election law changes — including new voting district maps — to the federal government for approval. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder enabled states, most of them in the South, to change voting districts without federal consent.
President Barack Obama spent the last chunk of his 2016 State of the Union Address talking about how to “fix our politics.” His first solution? Stop gerrymandering, the shaping of congressional districts to guarantee electoral outcomes. “We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” he said. At least one geographer has heeded Obama’s call to action. Using data from the US Census Bureau, Alasdair Rae, a geographer and urban planner at Sheffield University, built maps of every congressional district—all 435 of them—to show just how screwed up they really are. When Rae maps them individually, removed from the context of their surrounding districts, you can really see the extent of the problem. “There are some shapes that are quite egregious,” Rae says.
Buried less than two miles from the Capitol is the man many blame for the toxic partisanship infecting Congress today even though he died 202 years ago. Elbridge Gerry was a patriot, signer of the Declaration of Independence, drafter of the Constitution, House member, governor and vice president under James Madison. Yet he is best known today for the twist on his name that now defines the twisting of legislative boundaries to give one party or candidate an electoral advantage. This “gerrymandering” is seen by many as a root cause of Washington gridlock, a point President Obama underlined anew in his final State of the Union address. Mr. Gerry, as governor of Massachusetts in 1812, signed into law a state legislative map that included an irregularly shaped district obviously drawn to benefit his party. A cartoon in The Boston Gazette archly observed that the map resembled a salamander and added a head, wings and claws to bring it to life. “Better say a gerry-mander,” retorted the waggish opposition newspaper editor Benjamin Russell, who is often credited with coining the exact term. Thus, a lasting element of America’s political lexicon was born. (Mr. Gerry’s name was pronounced with a hard “G” that has been softened in the contemporary use of gerrymander.)
“If we want a better politics, it’s not enough just to change a congressman or change a senator or even change a president,” President Obama said in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. Instead of electing a few well-meaning people, the president insisted, “we have to change the system to reflect our better selves,” altering “not just who gets elected, but how they get elected.” Mr. Obama speaks from experience: He promised to be a political change agent in the Oval Office, and, seven years later, the country’s politics are more fractured than when he started. The truth is, as the president also acknowledged Tuesday, “our brand of democracy is hard,” with a certain amount of gridlock built into its system of checks and balances. No magic solution can bridge ideological and cultural rifts. But there are reforms that could help.
The Supreme Court is weighing the question of whether voting districts can be drawn in ways that give an advantage to one party, thereby violating the principle of one person, one vote. In Harris v Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, a group of Republican voters argue that the districting commission redrew the boundaries in 2011 such that, as the Tucson Sentinel put it, “almost all of Arizona’s Republican-leaning districts are overpopulated, and almost all of the state’s Democratic-leaning districts are underpopulated.” The US constitution requires every state to reevaluate the boundaries of voting districts after each national census, taken every ten years, and to redraw those boundaries to take into account changes in population. But did Arizona’s redrawing amount to gerrymandering—the deliberate manipulation of voting district boundaries to give Democrats an advantage? Or was the commission simply trying to comply with the Voting Rights Act amendments requiring that districts should be drawn so as to maximize minority voters?
Editorials: This is actually what America would look like without gerrymandering | Christopher Ingraham/The Washington Post
In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on lawmakers and the public to take a number of steps “to change the system to reflect our better selves” for “a better politics.” The top item on that list was to end partisan gerrymandering: “we have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around,” Obama said. In most states, state legislatures draw the district boundaries that determine how many delegates the state sends to the U.S. Congress, as well as the general partisan make-up of that delegation. State legislatures are partisan beasts, and if one party is in control of the process they can draw boundaries to give themselves a numeric advantage over their opponents in Congress. This process is called gerrymandering.
Gov. John Kasich says he wants to change the way Ohio draws congressional districts, but other supporters of the idea say it will take a change of heart by Ohio’s federal lawmakers to make it happen. Ohio’s congressional districts are currently drawn by the legislature, which can gerrymander districts to favor the party that controls the chambers. The process has led to a number of districts that make little geographic sense, allow for few competitive races and have given Republicans 12 of 16 seats. “I support redistricting reform dramatically,” Kasich said last week. “This will be something I’m going to do whether I’m elected president or whether I’m here. We carve these safe districts, and then when you’re in a safe district you have to watch your extremes, and you keep moving to the extremes.”
A federal judge improperly disposed of a challenge to Maryland gerrymandering without convening a three-judge panel, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. Stephen Shapiro, O. John Benisek and Maria Pycha filed the lawsuit pro se after the Maryland Legislature set new district lines for the state’s eight congressional seats in 2011. They appealed to the Supreme Court after the Fourth Circuit summarily affirmed a federal judge’s decision to dismiss the action. The basis for their challenge hinged on Section 2284(a) of Title 28, which since 1976 has required a three-judge panel to hear any action “challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of congressional districts or the apportionment of any statewide legislative body.”
Race did not predominate in alternative legislative maps created by the Alabama Democratic Conference, the group argued in a brief filed last month in the ongoing legal battle over the state’s House and Senate district boundaries. The filing responded to a state brief that called the ADC and Legislative Black Caucus’ proposals “bizarre” and accused the plaintiffs, suing to overturn the 2012 legislative map, of creating their own racial quotas. The ADC brief said their mapmaker followed standard practice in drawing maps, and said the Legislature’s approach “entrenches . . . racial divisions. The Supreme Court has made clear that race predominates when significant numbers of voters are moved by race at the boundaries of districts – and this is precisely what the State did – even as the ADC plans demonstrate that it is not necessary to do so to end up with districts that have the black population percentages that these districts do,” said the brief, filed on Nov. 24.
Partisan gerrymandering is an offense to democracy. It creates districts that are skewed and uncompetitive, denying voters the ability to elect representatives who fairly reflect their views. But on Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear a case in which a small dose of math can help the justices root out these offenses more easily. Redistricting may seem unglamorous, but it comes up repeatedly before the court. Last month, the justices heard a case that could streamline the path by which they receive such complaints. In oral arguments, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. expressed his fear that his court could be flooded with complex redistricting cases. But he needn’t be concerned. Tuesday’s case gives the court a chance to adopt a simple statistical standard for fairness that cuts through the legal morass. In the United States legislative system, district maps must be redrawn every 10 years, after each census, a process that legislators manipulate to gain advantage.
State legislatures are constitutionally obligated to redraw congressional districts every 10 years. But now, with an increased awareness of the potential for unfairness and abuse, voters are starting to push back. Most states make the redistricting decisions themselves, and accusations of gerrymandering – drawing the maps to unfairly preserve majority advantage – are frequent. Since the most recent census in 2010, lawsuits challenging congressional, state Senate or state legislature redistricting maps have been filed in 38 states; there were 37 such challenges following the 2000 round of redistricting. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court considered arguments over whether the Democrat-designed map in Maryland could be reviewed and potentially thrown out by a state panel. At the heart of that dispute is the fact that the state’s political affiliation, currently 54.3 percent Democrat and 25.8 percent Republican, has changed only marginally since Democrats held a 57 percent to 29.7 percent advantage in 2000. And yet Maryland’s eight-member congressional delegation has gone from being evenly split between the parties 15 years ago to a 7-1 Democratic advantage now after two rounds of redistricting under Democratic governors and legislatures. One of the districts, which have survived reviews by federal courts, was recently described by a federal judge as resembling “a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.” “Most people know that Maryland is home to some of the most egregiously gerrymandered districts in the country,” says Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland.
An effort is underway to present Colorado voters with a ballot question that would reform the state’s congressional redistricting process. Critics of the proposed initiative worry that it would limit minority voting blocs across the state by prohibiting drawing districts for the purpose of “augmenting … the voting strength of a language or racial minority group.” In all fairness, the proposed language would also prohibit mapping districts for purposes of “diluting” the voting strength of a minority group. Proponents say they have constructed a bipartisan effort ahead of the 2020 census, when the next congressional redistricting process would get underway. After the 2010 census, Republicans and Democrats fought over redrawing Colorado’s seven congressional districts, which created more competitive boundaries, to the ire of some Republicans. The issue was ultimately decided by Colorado courts after maps introduced by the Legislature during the 2011 session never advanced. Lawsuits were filed in Denver District Court, and in November 2011, the court ruled in favor of a Democratic proposal. In December 2011, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the Denver District Court decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s docket is crowded with voter redistricting disputes this term. The high court already heard a procedural redistricting dispute, Shapiro v. McManus, U.S., No. 14-990, argued, 11/4/15 (84 U.S.L.W. 615, 11/10/15), and the justices recently agreed to take a look at a racial gerrymandering challenge to Virginia’s latest voter map in Wittman v. Personhuballah, U.S., No. 14-1504, review granted, 11/13/15 (84 U.S.L.W. 663, 11/17/15). But on Dec. 8, the one-person, one-vote principle will take center stage at the high court in two separate redistricting cases: Evenwel v. Abbott, U.S., No. 14-940, oral argument scheduled, 12/8/15, and Harris v. Ariz. Indep. Redistricting Comm’n, U.S., No. 14-232, oral argument scheduled, 12/8/15. Where the justices ultimately land in these cases could have a national impact. The dispute in Evenwel—possibly the most consequential of the two one-person, one-vote challenges—centers on whether the one-person, one-vote principle announced in Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533 (1964), protects all persons, or just eligible voters.
A coalition of voting-rights organizations has withdrawn two state Senate redistricting proposals it had submitted to a Leon County judge, virtually ensuring that at least one district will cross Tampa Bay when the legal fight ends. The coalition, which includes the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause Florida, announced the move one day before the groups and the Legislature are set to file briefs with Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds objecting to each other’s maps. The state Senate has submitted a single map that would cross the bay. Reynolds is supposed to recommend one of the plans to the Florida Supreme Court as the best way to follow the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” redistricting standards approved by voters in 2010, after the Legislature agreed in a legal settlement that the current map would be found in violation of those rules.
The Florida Senate on Wednesday recommended to a Leon County judge a plan for the chamber’s 40 districts that was never voted on by either the House or Senate during a recent special redistricting session. The proposal to Circuit Judge George Reynolds, who will ultimately decide which map to suggest to the Florida Supreme Court, would essentially combine two “base maps” that were drawn by legislative aides in the run-up to the special session. Legislative leaders say that process insulated the base maps from political pressures that could have led to violations of the anti-gerrymandering “Fair Districts” amendments approved by voters in 2010. The special redistricting session, prompted by a legal settlement between the Legislature and voting-rights organizations that challenged the current Senate map, ended in failure after lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to redraw the map to fix districts that violated the Fair Districts standards.
With any luck, Colorado next year could join a growing list of states that have taken redistricting for Congress and the legislature out of the hands of partisan activists and their lawyers and put it with nonpartisan experts who draw competitive boundaries acceptable to the fair-minded everywhere. Goodbye gerrymandering — that centuries-old practice of rigging the political game by drawing district lines that guarantee single-party dominance. Every decade after the latest federal census, the two parties in Colorado lock horns in a contest to dominate and distort the redrawing of political maps. To halt this spectacle, a bipartisan group that includes former governors, secretaries of state, and speakers of the House released a ballot proposal this week that would create a 12-person redistricting commission comprised of four Republicans, four Democrats and four unaffiliated members.