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Princeton Gerrymandering Project

Update - Feb. 1, 2021

When it comes to gerrymandering by runaway legislatures, Maryland and Wisconsin are twins separated at birth. In 2011, they were both gerrymandered - Maryland by Democrats, and Wisconsin by Republicans. The two states were the subject of twin lawsuits that in 2018 went to the Supreme Court, which eventually shrank back from its opportunity to limit partisan gerrymandering. In 2021, both states have legislatures that might like to dominate the process again. But both states’ governors have found a strategy that they hope will break the feedback cycle of single-party control.

Governors Larry Hogan of Maryland and Tony Evers of Wisconsin have signed executive orders creating citizen redistricting commissions. The commissions lack authority to draw binding maps. But they do put redistricting in the public eye.

For this year’s redistricting, Wisconsin has split-party control of legislative and congressional redistricting. Republicans control the General Assembly, but lack the two-thirds majorities needed to override vetoes by Governor Evers, a Democrat. Now Republicans may be looking for ways to remove Evers from the process. They may attempt to enact a redistricting plan as a joint resolution rather than a law. According to Princeton Gerrymandering Project legal analyst Rick Ober, such an end run around the governor would defy numerous historical precedents. The state Supreme Court would have to rule on such a plan. That same court has been asked by Republicans to hear legislative disputes directly, rather than let an appeals court hear the case first. This would shorten the time that redistricting is in the news.

Governor Evers has chosen to increase, not decrease the visibility of redistricting. He has set up a nine-member non-partisan redistricting board. The commission will hold hearings in all eight congressional districts and submit maps to the state general assembly. The Wisconsin redistricting commission is only advisory--legislators are free to accept, modify, or reject the maps. But the commission’s proceedings will also create an extensive public record of a nonpartisan, open process.

In Maryland the roles are reversed, with a Democratic state legislature and Republican governor, Larry Hogan. Governor Hogan potentially has no other leverage: for congressional district lines, Democrats can override his veto with their three-fifths majority, and for state legislative maps, the law says the legislature may adopt maps through a joint resolution.

Governor Hogan has also established a nine-member advisory commission, with three members selected by the governor (one Republican, one Democrat, and one independent), as well as six Maryland citizens. The Maryland commission has specific instructions from the governor. Hogan has stated “Districts must be geographically compact and must not take into account how citizens are registered to vote, how they have voted in the past, or what political party they happen to belong to.” Neutral on its face, disregarding information about voters tends to emphasize compactness and county/city boundaries, and can inadvertently pack city dwellers into a few districts, giving an advantage to Republicans because they dominate rural areas. Even if the commission initially disregards partisan voting data, it would be best to score plans for voting outcomes at some point in the process.

These two commissions represent a chance for both Wisconsin and Maryland to break the feedback loop of self-dealing in which legislators draw their own districts. The commissions create a forum to facilitate transparency and awareness. By driving the public conversation, these commissions can help make maps fair, no matter which party is in the majority.

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