OPINION: This article contains commentary which may reflect the author's opinion
Democratic efforts to draw favorable congressional district boundaries were struck down by judges in two deep blue states last week, stinging rebukes to a party that has used the judicial branch to even the playing field with Republicans for the last decade.
There was a ruling in Maryland and New York state courts that the Democratically-controlled legislatures violated their respective constitutions by favoring one political party over another while redistricting in the wake of the decennial census.
Legislators in New York State approved, earlier this year, changes in congressional district lines that would have given Democratic candidates the edge in 20 of the state’s 26 congressional districts, and Republicans the advantage in only 4 of them. Representatives Antonio Delgado (D) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D), who currently hold two of the two remaining seats, are both narrowly favored for the Democrats.
Following the ten year period of Democratic victories in Maryland, while just one Republican won the election, the legislature became even more aggressive. According to maps enacted in December, a district held by Rep. Andy Harris (R) on the Eastern Shore would have added thousands of new Democratic voters, putting the fate of the state’s only remaining Republican at risk.
“They’re clearly gerrymanders,” said Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the main GOP group coordinating remap efforts.
As a result of the rulings issued by the courts in the respective cases, the Democrats defended their maps. Adrienne Jones (R-House Speaker) and Bill Ferguson (D-Senate), spokesmen for the House and Senate respectively, said they were “disappointed” in a result that does “not represent the historic and long-standing legal requirements” that were considered by legislators when drawing their state’s congressional map.
“We intend to appeal this decision,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Attorney General Letitia James (D) said in a one-sentence joint statement. The law of the state of New York provides that while the appeal is being adjudicated, the maps passed by Democratic legislators will remain in effect. In their appeal, Democrats are optimistic that they will be successful. They noted that the judge who struck down their maps is from the county where the state has the highest percentage of Republican voters.
Attorney General Brian Froshal of Maryland also confirmed that he would appeal. Maryland’s legislature has passed a new version of their maps that would go into effect only if the judge’s ruling stands.
Eric Holder, former United States attorney general and current head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, told the Washington Post in a statement that the Maryland judge was on the right track.
“The judge is right and the legislature is not wrong,” Holder said. “An adherence to fairness and democracy principles may result in a map not significantly different than the one initially drawn.”
However, these early losses represent the first major defeats facing Democratic-drew maps in a state court this year.
As a redistricting expert and senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Michael Li, who has insight into redistricting and is at the center of the litigation, said that the maps under threat represent a new approach for the Democrats. For decades, Democrats have used the redistricting process to support incumbents in swing seats, Li said.
“Historically, Democrats have placed priority on incumbent protection, and this time in places like New York they tried to take out Republicans,” Li said. “Democrats have been more aggressive this cycle.”
There have been a number of Democratic victories in redistricting this year, including safeguarding maps in states like Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, and New Mexico and defeating Republican-drawn maps in Ohio and North Carolina at least temporarily. Republicans have drawn maps that have been successfully challenged by Democrats in several states such as Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere in the last decade.
However, the recent legal victories by Republican plaintiffs are an indication that courts are more than willing to scrap Democratic maps that the courts deem to be too far-reaching.
The Democrats have accused Republicans of radical gerrymandering in recent years, but this is a practice that has been around for quite some time already.
Brothers and Democrats Phil and John Burton, who were Democrats who were considered pioneers of modern gerrymandering, having overseen redistricting in California 40 years ago.
“The notion that Democrats don’t gerrymander has always been farcical, and they’re just doubling down on it this cycle,” Kincaid said. “They’re more than happy to advocate for and support gerrymandering where it benefits them.”
Democrats are making the most of their limited chances to influence redistricting maps, say those who follow redistricting every decade.
Redistricting is completely controlled by Republicans in 19 states that send more than one representative to Congress; Democrats have complete control in only eight states. State boundaries are either drawn by a commission or divided between both parties in the remaining states.