By Bruce DePuyt
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said legal challenges to redistricting schemes like Maryland’s provide the Supreme Court an opportunity to erect “guardrails” limiting the use of partisan map-making, and he expressed “cautious optimism” that the court will do so.
Speaking to students at Georgetown University on Monday night, Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Commission (NRDC), said Republicans in state legislatures have made far better use of their power to draw self-serving districts than Democrats. On its website, the NRDC says it “is attacking this problem from every angle to ensure the next round of redistricting is fair and that maps reflect the will of the voters.”
“There are instances you can probably point to where Democrats have not played fairly, but it pales in comparison to what Republicans have done,” he said.
Although Holder did not say so, Maryland is one of the places where Democrats, rather than Republicans, control the redistricting process – and have taken full advantage, drawing a congressional map that gives Democrats a 7-1 seat edge.
Holder said computerization has given today’s politicians tools that would have been unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. “It’s a pretty crass thing.”
He urged students to make their voices heard, so that politicians know “there is a consequence for not doing the right thing.”
Holder, who served as attorney general for most of President Obama’s time in office, was interviewed by Mo Elleithee, founding executive director of the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service. The event, which drew more than 100 students, was held the day the Supreme Court upheld a state court ruling overturning congressional districts drawn by Pennsylvania Republicans.
The GOP currently holds 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 House seats, but a new and less partisan map for this year’s election, drawn by the state Supreme Court, provides Democrats with half a dozen pickup opportunities.
Oral arguments before the Supreme Court in Benisek vs. Lamone, a Republican challenge to Maryland’s congressional lines – and specifically, to the contours of the 6th District – will be heard on March 28. Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R), who has filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the plaintiffs, has called the state’s lines “absurd and disgraceful.”
Echoing language used by Hogan, Holder told the students that partisan redistricting has a damaging impact on American democracy. It “increases the dysfunction in government and the distrust of government. People see that government doesn’t work, and to the extent that it does work, it doesn’t reflect the desires of the majority of the American people.”
He repeatedly cited the public’s “overwhelming” support for background checks for gun purchases, a view he said doesn’t translate into action because of gerrymandering.
Holder mocked a congressional district in Virginia that’s “only contiguous at high tide” and a Pennsylvania seat whose lines “run through a parking lot.” In an interview afterward, he declined to single out Maryland’s notorious 3rd District as being an egregious example of partisan mapmaking, despite its ungainly shape.
The NDRC’s strategy, he said, is to fight partisan gerrymandering in court, boost public awareness of the problem and press for reforms, such as placing district-drawing power into the hands of independent citizen commissions, something Hogan has advocated in Maryland without success (State House Democrats have urged Hogan to back regional reform efforts.)
Douglass V. Mayer, Hogan’s communications director, said the administration applauds Holder’s efforts to reform the system.
“Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who threw the first punch or who threw the most punches,” he said. “What matters is that Americans are having their civil rights systematically violated in pursuit of partisan politics.”
“We hope that Mr. Holder changes his views and joins with the governor in righting these wrongs.”
Holder, who acknowledged he’s considering a run for president in 2020, is traveling the country to drum up support for redistricting reform and to help Democrats capture more state legislative seats. Numbers generated by the decennial census in 2020 will be used to draw new maps in 2021, in time for the 2022 midterm elections.
“If you give us a fair fight, Democrats and progressives will do just fine” in those contests, he said.