WASHINGTON — In an enormous partisan gerrymandering case that may come earlier than the Supreme Court docket in March, legal professionals, and judges have already devoted hundreds of phrases to the query of why a few of Maryland’s eight congressional districts are so, ah, creatively drawn.
However one of the best reply by far comes from the person who drew them.
In 2011, Eric Hawkins lugged a laptop computer loaded with demographic knowledge and a program known as Maptitude to Capitol Hill and the workplaces of the state’s six Democratic Home members. Over a sequence of conferences of which there apparently are not any written information, Mr. Hawkins not solely crafted new districts for these members, however rerouted the district of 10-term Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett to make it considerably more difficult for a Republican.
Within the first election after the brand new maps have been drawn, Mr. Bartlett did not muster even 38 p.c of the vote. And Maryland Democrats added one other Home seat to the six they already boasted.
Requested in a deposition final 12 months why the state’s Democratic Home members met with him, Mr. Hawkins was refreshingly forthcoming. “They wished to get re-elected,” he mentioned.
Mr. Hawkins, an analyst for a Washington political consulting agency known as NCEC Providers Inc., is a part of a cottage business of statisticians, pc jockeys and political sages whose enterprise is to show demographic knowledge into electoral maps. His agency works completely with Democrats; others — like Geographic Methods, run by the previous Republican Get together redistricting skilled Thomas B. Hofeller — are dog-loyal to Republicans.
By and huge, they’re political junkies and knowledge nerds. Mr. Hawkins left the College of Colorado within the 1980s to hitch the doomed presidential campaigns of Senator Gary Hart and Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts earlier than going into consulting. Mr. Hofeller holds a Ph.D. in authorities, helped develop the primary computerized redistricting system for California’s State Meeting, and has lengthy been the mapmaking éminence grise within the Republican Get together.
Within the present stew over partisan gerrymandering, few mapmakers are keen to speak in regards to the back-room sausagemaking that happens when state and congressional political boundaries are redrawn. A lot of what they do say, like Mr. Hawkin’s concise reflection on politics, comes from court docket depositions. And understandably so: To their many detractors, redistricting consultants floor each 10 years, cicada-like, to ravage the panorama of minority events in state legislatures and Congress. A 2012 journal article named them “The League of Harmful Mapmakers.”
However the actuality is no less than considerably totally different. If most mapmakers are unabashedly partisan, their work goes properly past back-room politics. An excellent map meets constitutional necessities, corresponding to allotting an equal variety of individuals to each district and respecting racial and ethnic populations. It retains communities intact somewhat than splitting them into totally different jurisdictions; pays consideration to rivers and different geographic options that form jurisdictions. It doesn’t needlessly oust incumbents.
And when one social gathering controls the method, even good maps often strengthen majority management. The Supreme Court docket has allowed that some partisanship in redistricting is inevitable; the query within the Maryland case is whether or not it has run unconstitutionally amok.
In essentially the most egregious partisan gerrymanders, maps usually ignore some or all of these strictures. For his or her half, mapmakers are fast to level out that their job is to implement political will, to not decide it.
“The individual paying the payments drives it,” mentioned Keith Gaddie, a College of Oklahoma political scientist who suggested Republicans’ 2011 redistricting of the Wisconsin State Meeting, which was challenged within the Supreme Court docket final fall. “You can provide them warning and counsel, however they’re going to do what they’re going to do.” (Mr. Gaddie and a second scholar filed an amicus temporary within the Wisconsin case urging the Supreme Court docket to rein in gerrymandering.)
Mentioned one Republican advisor, who would converse solely on situation of anonymity: “Some individuals assume I simply stroll right into a legislature with a map they usually genuflect to me. That’s not the best way it really works.”
Certainly, as court docket information within the Maryland case present, incumbent politicians usually make calls for of mapmakers that transcend drawing themselves a secure seat. Consultant C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberg, a Maryland Democrat who served on the time on the Home Intelligence Committee, insisted that Fort Meade, the house of the Nationwide Safety Company, be a part of his turf, in accordance with a deposition of then-Governor Martin O’Malley. Consultant Donna Edwards, one other Democrat who left workplace final 12 months, insisted that her district be left untouched— no simple activity, as inhabitants shifts alone required that new boundaries be drawn.
In addition to the Wisconsin and Maryland instances, partisan gerrymanders are underneath assault in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the place courts invalidated Republican-drawn congressional maps this month. Mr. Hofeller’s agency, Geographic Methods, drew the North Carolina districts — as in Maryland, in accordance with court docket depositions, with out leaving a paper path. Pennsylvania relied on legislative workers members to carve up the state’s Home districts.
However in all instances, the method is kind of the identical. Mapmakers start with Census Bureau knowledge that marries political boundaries and geographic options like rivers and roads with data on residents’ ages, races and ethnicities. Redistricting software program can add custom-tailored political knowledge to the combo, permitting map-drafters to see immediately the partisan impression on a proposed district of including or eradicating areas as small as a block.
Kimball W. Brace, whose agency, Election Information Providers, largely assists Democrats, mentioned the fundamentals are little modified from the 1980s, when he used enormous paper maps and acetate overlays to create districts in Illinois. Again then, he mentioned, completed map knowledge was entered onto coding sheets by hand, then taken to an area financial institution whose mainframe would crunch the numbers in a single day after it completed clearing checks.
Fashionable computer systems have diminished these weeks of labor to hours, and each maps and census and political knowledge have turn into much more correct, he mentioned. In creating 2011 redistricting maps, Wisconsin Republicans created a composite partisan rating for every of the state’s 6,00Zero-plus wards based mostly on the outcomes of statewide elections since 2004. North Carolina used outcomes from as many as 20 state elections; Maryland’s NCEC Providers used a usually up to date “Democratic efficiency index,” a proprietary evaluation of the social gathering’s energy in state and federal races.
Redistricting that begins in 2021 is more likely to be much more finely tuned, Mr. Brace mentioned, counting on the explosion of selling and on-line data that may infer private preferences right down to particular person households. “We’re seeing that increasingly more in campaigns,” he mentioned, “so I feel you’ll see individuals wanting to make use of it in redistricting.”
Whereas consultants can and typically do produce lots of of instructed maps, most modern political leaders with between 5 and 10 choices that may be fine-tuned to fulfill incumbents’ needs.
In states the place political energy is split, district maps could also be politically impartial — or drawn to protect incumbents in each events. In different states underneath one-party management, the political marching orders could also be extra brazen: North Carolina Republicans ordered that not more than three of the state’s 13 Home seats be given to Democrats.
Mr. Gaddie, who analyzed the partisan impression of proposed Wisconsin State Meeting maps for the chamber’s Republicans, says partisan gerrymandering has turn into a risk to the political system as a result of politics has devolved into all-out ideological conflict, not due to redistricting software program or dark-hearted mapmakers. He mentioned he deserted a sideline as a redistricting adviser and skilled witness in redistricting lawsuits after ending work in Wisconsin.
“I favored working for them in ’02,” he mentioned, “as a result of I’d sit down with a lawyer they usually’d say, ‘I like aggressive maps. When a map is aggressive, we are able to win on the deserves.’ By the point I get round to 2011, they’ve modified. I can’t defend this crap.”
That’s not to say that mapmakers are wholly harmless bystanders within the course of. “It will be good for the nation and politics if partisan gerrymandering ended,” Mark Gersh, the president of NCEC Providers, mentioned in an e-mail this week. However in a subsequent interview, Mr. Gersh stood up for his agency’s work in Maryland and elsewhere.
“I don’t consider in unilateralism,” he mentioned. “If one aspect does it, the opposite has to. If that makes me unethical, so be it.”
Maryland’s redistricting was pushed by the Democratic governor, Mr. O’Malley, who testified in a deposition that he felt “it was not solely my accountability, however my responsibility” to saturate Maryland’s Republican-leaning Sixth District with Democratic voters “supplied we obeyed the dictates of the legislation.”
They ultimately flipped the Sixth District to Democrats, however solely by redrawing different districts, domino-style, to make sure that the lack of Montgomery County voters didn’t endanger others within the delegation. Within the ensuing map, the Democratic Third District was so laughably contorted federal choose in contrast it to a “broken-winged pterodactyl, mendacity prostrate throughout the middle of the state.”
“Incumbent safety,” Mr. Hawkins testified within the Maryland lawsuit final 12 months, “was the foremost focus of this.”
Requested whether or not these incumbents included Consultant Bartlett, the Republican within the Sixth District, Mr. Hawkins replied, “No.”