Maryland Democrats passed the congressional map shown at the top in part to ensure a seven-to-one edge in Congress. Its 3rd district is so bizarrely-shaped that a federal judge called it “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl.” Critics frequently point to this map as one of America's most gerrymandered and use it as evidence that Democrats bear equal blame with Republicans for our nation’s gerrymandering epidemic. However, this equivalence is false because compactness alone is a terrible metric to judge gerrymandering without regard for alternative maps and outcomes.
As the bottom map shows, it was easily possible to elect an additional Democrat with much neater lines. Crucially, the actual gerrymander might have only netted Democrats a mere one extra seat compared to a nonpartisan alternative. Maryland’s congressional map is undeniably gerrymandered, but Democrats didn’t even try to maximize their partisan advantage. Instead, incumbents greedily sought particular turf to aid their own personal political ambitions. In contrast, Republicans tried to maximize their seat count in nearly every state they drew, such as a 12-to-four edge in the swing state of Ohio.
Make no mistake, gerrymandering is a major problem in America, but when states with 55 percent of congressional districts are drawn to favor Republicans and only 10 percent for Democrats, it is far from a problem where both sides share equal blame. Gerrymandering likely cost Democrats a House majority in 2012 and could potentially do so again in 2016. Yet as the above comparison illustrates, determining what exactly constitutes a gerrymander and its particular strength isn’t as simple as looking for funny district shapes.
Land does not vote and we can’t judge gerrymanders simply based on geometry. Districts aren’t just abstract shapes on a map, but collections of actual people and voters. Ultimately, the outcomes produced by a particular map matter far more than a map’s appearance. Comparing the actual congressional districts to plausible alternatives in Maryland and other states demonstrates both how gerrymandering is more complex than merely grotesque shapes, and that Maryland is far from the worst partisan gerrymander nationwide.
How did Maryland arrive at such a monstrous-looking map? After 2010, Democrats held six out of eight districts, all of which were overwhelmingly Democratic. They soon set their sights on targeting one or even both of the Republican-held 1st and 6th districts in redistricting—but the story doesn’t end there.
Republicans set out to maximize the number of seats they could win in nearly every state they controlled. In North Carolina and others, that even meant radically altering districts belonging to Republican incumbents, sometimes against their wishes. However, that was not to be the case for Democrats in Maryland. Although they did target the 6th District, Democratic incumbent demands for particular territory resulted in serpentine districts and made flipping the 1st District politically difficult, despite being very technically possible.
Chief among these demands were those of 3rd District Rep. John Sarbanes. He wanted to keep his home of Towson north of Baltimore and the state capital of Annapolis while adding part of the D.C. suburbs in Montgomery County, a vote-rich region and important fundraising base for a future statewide race. These demands weren’t to protect Sarbanes from electoral defeat, but they led to contorted district lines, especially since Towson is in close proximity to 2nd District Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger’s home of Cockeysville in northern Baltimore County.
Other Democrats such as Ruppersberger made demands that led to the map becoming more oddly shaped too. In addition to his home in Cockeysville, Ruppersberger, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, wanted to keep two military bases in his district. However, Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County and Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County are on opposite sides of the Baltimore metro area.
In the 5th district, Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer wanted to keep his longtime political base in northern Prince George’s County and his current home in Southern Maryland, while likely wanting to avoid making his district too heavily African-American in order to deter a black primary challenger. Minority advocacy groups unsurprisingly wanted the opposite and aimed to create a second district in the D.C. suburbs with a significant minority population, whether that meant altering Hoyer’s seat or creating an entirely new district.
In the 4th district Rep. Donna Edwards, who has a much more tenuous relationship with the party establishment, tried to keep part of Montgomery County in her district. Despite being African-American in a majority-black district, Edwards first won her seat in the 2008 primary thanks to white liberals in Montgomery County supporting her over a more conservative black incumbent with a base in Prince George’s County, Al Wynn. Like Sarbanes, Edwards likely also wanted to keep this key region in anticipation of her bid for statewide office.
However, mapmakers completely ignored her desires, while Sarbanes, Ruppersberger, and Hoyer largely got what they wanted. In total, these parochial demands from lawmakers resulted in central Maryland resembling a Rorschach blot, but it certainly did not have to be this way for Democrats to draw an effective partisan gerrymander.
Democrats could have drawn a far more aggressive partisan gerrymander, making all eight districts safely Democratic with considerably neater-looking district lines. Every single district above went for President Obama by 20 points or more, turning the 1st district from solidly Republican to solidly Democratic. Even the 6th district, which Democrats nearly lost in 2014 despite successfully gerrymandering it to eliminate a Republican incumbent in 2012, would see Obama’s margin expand by 7 percent.
The above map even gives all six Democratic incumbents in 2012 a clear district to run in that year. Although new turf would have meant those incumbents would have needed to work harder to establish ties with their new constituents, none of the six would have been likely to lose a primary challenge in hindsight.
Edwards and Hoyer likely would have been dissatisfied with this map, particularly since Hoyer’s Southern Maryland home is placed in a majority-black 5th district and his northern Prince George’s County base is drawn outside the district. Edwards might have even run in the newly black-majority 5th instead while Hoyer might have moved to the much less black 4th.
Both Democrats would have had to make sacrifices for the benefit of their party, but Hoyer, in office since 1981 and the second highest-ranking House Democrat, should have been more than powerful and entrenched enough to avoid losing a primary challenge.
Had Democrats been as partisan as Republicans were in nearly every state they controlled, Democrats could have easily gained another district in Maryland. The actual map wasn’t the strongest gerrymander possible, but on the other hand, what might a nonpartisan map look like in comparison?
This map utilizes nonpartisan redistricting criteria such as city and county integrity, geographic compactness, communities of interest, and Voting Rights Act compliance.
No longer are Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs split several ways each to spread out Democrats. The 4th and 8th remain within the D.C. suburbs while the 5th combines the rest of those suburbs with Southern Maryland, allowing both the 4th and 5th to become predominantly black. The black-majority 7th gains the rest of Baltimore while the 2nd includes its inner suburbs to the east, north, and west. The 3rd becomes a compact district centered on Anne Arundel and Howard counties in central Maryland. The 1st is largely the Eastern Shore, while Western Maryland and further-out Baltimore exurbs like those in Carroll County make up the 6th.
The 1st and 6th districts here are solidly Republican, but every other seat strongly favors Democrats. Obama won the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 7th, and 8th districts by more than 20 percent and carried the 3rd by 9 points. While Democratic incumbents in 2012 wouldn’t have gotten their choice turf, all six likely could have still won renomination and re-election that year.
Republicans might have had an outside shot at flipping this hypothetical 3rd in the 2014 wave since Obama’s 9-point margin was four points less than his margin in the actual 6th District, which Democrats barely won that year. However, entrenched multi-term Rep. Sarbanes would have likely been even tougher for Republicans to beat in 2014 than then-freshman Rep. John Delaney in the 6th.
This map likely would have still left Democrats with a solid six-to-two advantage on average, which is one seat better than the five-to-three split that might arise from a more proportional allocation in a state Obama won with roughly five-eighths of the vote.
However, this map is hardly a Democratic gerrymander—in fact it’s very similar to what Maryland Republicans themselves proposed as a nonpartisan alternative to the actual Democratic gerrymander debate over passage of the actual districts in 2011. It isn’t atypical for single-member districts in states that heavily favor one party to give that party more than their proportional share of seats even without gerrymandering. That’s why single-member districts themselves are such a flawed electoral system and proportional representation is a more preferable reform than merely ending gerrymandering.
So despite all the focus on ugly lines, Maryland Democrats drew a gerrymander that ultimately probably only netted them a single extra seat out of eight and almost failed to do even that in 2014, when they nearly lost the 6th district. That’s a far cry from many other states that Republicans drew, which had much greater distortions compared either to the state’s partisanship or the outcome a nonpartisan map might produce.
Let’s take a look at two of those Republican-drawn states in particular, Indiana and North Carolina.
Indiana Republicans held a six-to-three edge in the congressional delegation after 2010. They wanted to ensure they held onto the two seats the party gained in 2010—the 8th and 9th districts, while also flipping an additional Democratic seat they just barely lost that year, the 2nd. Like Maryland Democrats, Indiana Republicans drew a gerrymander with a modest but nonetheless clear partisan impact. However, unlike in Maryland, that didn’t require funny-looking district lines at all.
As with Maryland, the minority party’s voters (in this case Democrats) are inefficiently distributed geographically to produce proportional outcomes in Indiana. That lets Republicans rather easily pack Democrats into just two urban districts, the 1st and 7th, while they efficiently spread out Republicans among the remaining ones. All of the suburban and exurban counties adjacent to Indianapolis’ Marion County have a strong record of voting straight-ticket Republican and mapmakers shrewdly divided them among four separate districts to ensure that Republicans were not wasted in overly-red districts.
Doing so enabled Republicans to solidify their hold on the 9th district, which had previously contained only Southern Indiana and historically had been much more hospitable to Democrats. They also made sure to remove heavily-Democratic Michigan City from the northwestern edge of the 2nd in return for heavily-Republican rural areas further east. That enabled the party to successfully gain that seat in 2012, although by a narrower margin than expected in what was a relatively decent year for Indiana Democrats.
A potential nonpartisan Indiana congressional map shown above wouldn’t have districts that looked radically different, but there still would be a subtle impact. Since the 4th no longer stretches from the Indianapolis suburbs to northern Indiana, that allows the 1st to move south and the 2nd to unify most of Democratic-leaning La Porte County like they did prior to 2012. Critically, these changes reduce Mitt Romney’s margin in the 2nd from 14.2 percent to 10.6 percent. Since Republicans only won the 2nd by 1.5 percent in 2012, it is probable that Democrats would have instead prevailed without gerrymandering padding Romney’s margin by nearly 4 points.
Indiana’s Republican gerrymander likely ultimately netted the party a single seat in 2012 while solidifying seats that likely would have leaned their way anyway, just as Maryland Democrats’ map likely did. Just because the districts don’t look as manipulative as they do in Maryland doesn’t mean they aren’t similarly gerrymandered. Indiana Republicans simply didn’t need to draw insane-looking lines to satisfy their incumbents and effectively lock in a seven-to-two edge in a state that Romney only won by 10 points.
North Carolina’s congressional map actually is one of the most gerrymandered ones in America. Like with Maryland, the lines are extremely non-compact, but unlike Maryland, Republicans did this to squeeze out every Republican voter so they could win 10 seats while consigning every Democrat they could into three overwhelmingly-blue vote sinks. All 10 Republican seats even hit the sweet spot of party support in the high 50s, a level that is very safe for the party but doesn’t waste excess partisans who could secure other districts.
North Carolina started with a seven-to-six Democratic majority before redistricting, but after 2014 Republicans successfully secured their sought-after 10-to-three edge. Democratic 7th District Rep. Mike McIntyre barely survived in 2012 thanks to his incumbency, only to retire in the face of likely defeat in 2014. Outside of that single victory under the new map, Democrats in 2012 and 2014 didn’t come particularly close to winning any of the 10 seats Republicans drew for themselves to win.
Republicans attempted to hide elements of their partisan gerrymander with a racial gerrymander, since minority voters overwhelmingly support Democrats in North Carolina, and this led to even messier lines in the 1st District. Republicans pretended to merely comply with the Voting Rights Act when they packed black (Democratic) voters into the 1st and 12th districts, increasing both districts from a black plurality to a black majority. However, a federal district court deemed this an illegal racial gerrymander not required by the VRA and subsequently struck down these districts in February of 2016.
Republicans subsequently passed the above replacement map for use in the upcoming 2016 elections, pending final court approval. While the district lines are far neater than under the old map, Republicans explicitly aimed to maintain a lopsided 10-to-three advantage. Romney won nine of 13 seats by double digits and another one by a still-comfortable 6.9 percent.
Although there is a strong possibility that the district court rejects the legislature’s replacement map, Democrats are not putting forth a serious effort to flip any of the 10 Republican-held seats. That means that one of the most evenly-divided swing states could still have an extremely unrepresentative partisan balance in Congress, even with district lines that are far neater than those in Maryland.
Finally, comparing the two Republican-drawn gerrymanders with a nonpartisan alternative can give us an idea of how powerful those gerrymanders are.
Unlike Indiana and Maryland, gerrymandering has an enormous partisan impact in North Carolina. This hypothetical nonpartisan map creates five districts that are strongly Democratic, five that are strongly Republican, and three that are quite competitive. In total that’s a whopping five fewer strongly-Republican districts than under the gerrymanders Republicans drew, with two more Democratic seats and three more swing districts.
7th District Rep. Mike McIntyre and 11th District Rep. Heath Shuler were very entrenched Democrats in two of those swing seats by the time redistricting took place. Without gerrymandering, both would have almost certainly been re-elected in 2012 and both would have been positioned to win even in 2014, since North Carolina Democrats fared relatively decently given the very hostile national environment. Additionally, 2nd District Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers has not been a particularly strong incumbent. She might have lost that swing district in 2012 or 2014, but would have been a top target in 2016 even if not.
Without partisan gerrymandering, Democrats likely would have won at least three more seats in 2012, giving them a seven-to-six majority in line with their majority of the statewide popular vote that year. In 2014 they would have been in a strong position to keep that majority due to incumbency. That means gerrymandering likely swung at least four out of 13 seats to Republicans in the most recent election, a much higher proportion than the one seat out of eight that Maryland Democrats likely gained.
North Carolina is hardly an extreme outlier in terms of its partisan distortion. Gerrymandering likely makes a difference of several seats in many other Republican-drawn states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. By contrast, Democrats only drew a very aggressive partisan gerrymander in one state out of the mere six that they controlled: Illinois.
Of course Democrats are not faultless regarding gerrymandering. However, it is simply inaccurate to use Maryland as an example of Democrats drawing gerrymanders just as extreme as Republicans do. We should judge gerrymanders not by district geometry, but by their partisan attributes and impact on outcomes. The evidence in Maryland, North Carolina, and other states demonstrates that Republicans have been more aggressively manipulating the redistricting process for partisan advantage.
Note: This story has been updated as of 2019