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Pivot-Point: Hi-tech gerrymandering faces citizen commissions around U.S., Is Annapolis different?

--Adapted from Inside Sources story, by Matthew Liptak

Politicians are becoming more sophisticated regarding gerrymandering, according to some, and the age-old legislative temptation is advancing into the 21st century with a digital twist. Faced with a trend of putting the drawing of voting district lines into the hands of citizen commissions, including Maryland, politicians around the country are increasingly turning to assistance from computers to prioritize their party.

“I could easily see us going down one of two paths,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal analyst for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. “If citizens don’t speak out computer use of gerrymandering will be more extreme. The other direction is citizens get fed up with it, I think that if that happens you’ll see more citizen commissions.”

The increased use of computers to assist in gerrymandering districts has had an added benefit for politicians. The maps now look cleaner to the public, helping ensure those with the power to draw the map lines keep their political power for the long term.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project is an effort led by Princeton University neuroscience professor Samuel Wang to understand the real-world implications of gerrymandering through analysis and interpretion of available data. “We translate the math into law and the law into math,” the project’s website reads.

The project’s team has found that there is a gerrymandering sweet spot when it comes to maps. Politicians want to bolster their support in districts, while not overloading the partisan lines.

“It seems what politicians are doing is that if they can get over 60 percent that district is never going to flip,” Podowitz-Thomas said. “They’re instructing computers to draw lines 60 to 70 percent within their party lines. They’re drawing the lines to serve both immediate interests and long-term interests.”

But there is good news too, The trend of creating independent citizens’ commissions to take power of redistricting away from state legislatures seems to be catching on also. In Maryland, Republican Governor Larry Hogan instituted one such commission earlier this year.

“Governor Larry Hogan campaigned against gerrymandering,” said Walter Olson, co-chair of the state’s Citizen Redistricting Commission, which is made up of three Republicans, three Democrats, and three Independents. “The idea for our commission was to draw maps not drawn to gain advantage, The process is structured as such to be neutral.”

The Maryland commission is forbidden to favor parties or politicians as they draw proposed district maps. They are not allowed to consider party registration numbers or the location of political incumbents.

Early indications are that the Maryland commission at least, is not only more objective than politically-motivated redistricting, but it is more responsive to the collective public will. In one county, commission members listened to county residents’ positions regarding how map lines should be drawn when it came to citizens on each side of the Chesapeake Bay. They also heard an outcry from the public in St. Mary’s county, in the south of Maryland, when the public objected to a proposed map.

“We went back to the drawing board,” Olson said. “That’s how it works.”

That’s a far cry from the way redistricting maps have been traditionally drawn in Maryland. Historically, and possibly even this time around, incumbent politicians have kept that power to themselves, deciding where lines are drawn through partisan political agreements kept out of the public eye.

“In Maryland before now the process also tended to be somewhat secretive,” Olson said. “For a while the process has been done largely in (cycles), by political insiders. The results were simply announced.”

The state’s Republican State Senator Bryan Simonaire was critical of the process in an email.

“Maryland needs an overhaul when it comes to redistricting,” he wrote. “Gerrymandering is the way of life in Maryland. It is a foregone conclusion that the Congressional maps will be gerrymandered. The only question is whether the Democrats are satisfied with 7 of the 8 seats or will they try to get all 8 seats. Political leaders know what is right for the people, but the question remains whether they will have the political courage to do it.”

Maryland State Senate President, Democrat Bill Ferguson's office was contacted regarding redistricting and gerrymandering, but the senator was not able to provide a comment before publication.

After Governor Hogan created an independent commission, Maryland’s General Assembly created its own redistricting committee. Olson said six of the seven members of that committee are incumbents. It is the “opposite” of a citizens commission, he said.

Simonaire indicated that Governor Hogan’s citizen commission is not a total solution, but it may be a good start. Republicans in the state are plain spoken about their position.

“We believe a commission comprised of citizens is better than a commission stacked with politicians that directly benefit from the output.,” Simonaire wrote. “Republican leaders are not calling for Republican maps or Democrats maps, but maps that favor the people.”

In Maryland, both the independent redistricting commission and the legislative redistricting committee will draw maps and the legislature will vote on the final official rendition. Both houses of the state legislature in Maryland are currently controlled by Democrats.

Politicians of all stripes have often been sorely tempted into gerrymandering. But this year Democrats around the country are under political pressure to engage in the practice, especially in order to secure congressional seats during next year’s midterm elections. They currently hold the House by a razor margin, with just a handful of seats standing between them and a Republican majority.

Gerrymandering is well-rooted this year in the redistricting taking place around the country. As it becomes more sophisticated through computing, accurate public representation in the United States risks becoming more warped by dirty politics.

There is real hope right now and on the horizon however. Standing up and empowering independent commissions that are truly transparent and accountable, could just be the first nail in the coffin of gerrymandering.

“We want to exemplify a process that we hope will be endorsed as a better way,” commsssion co-chair Olson said.