Courts have historically shied away from striking down redistricting plans for fear of showing favor to one party in a process that is inherently political. But recent decisions by state and federal judges in North Carolina and Pennsylvania suggest that the judicial branch thinks partisan gerrymandering has gone too far and needs to stop. We hope lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia are paying attention and that those decisions serve as a trigger for them to overhaul how their states’ legislative and congressional districts are drawn.
Both states — and both parties — are guilty of egregious abuses of gerrymandering, as evidenced by the particulars of pending court cases. In Maryland, it was Democrats, in control of the legislature and governor’s office, that redrew congressional districts in 2011 to unseat Republican Roscoe Bartlett by including more Democrats in his Western Maryland district. In Virginia, it was the Republican-led General Assembly that drew a 2011 statehouse map that packed minorities into a small number of districts to increase the GOP advantage in surrounding areas. The Supreme Court is set to hear a challenge to Maryland’s map, Benisek v. Lamone, and last year it ordered a lower court to reexamine the Virginia case, Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections. A decision could come any day.
But it shouldn’t take a court order to get lawmakers to do the right thing. Redistricting historically has allowed the party in charge to draw lines in a way to give it a certain edge. But there should be limits and, more importantly, a sense of fairness that does not distort the political landscape at the expense of certain voters. “Invidious partisan intent” was the phrase used by a federal three-judge panel in North Carolina in declaring Republican-drawn congressional district lines unconstitutional. More than one party has been damaged — the polarization of today’s politics can be traced in part to the creation of safe seats in which incumbents only worry about primary challengers and see no gain in compromise with the other political party.