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Welcome to America’s Most Gerrymandered District

Maryland’s 3rd congressional district, the most gerrymandered in the nation, is a Rorschach test in the most literal sense. The Washington Post called it a “crazy quilt.” A local politician compared it to “blood spatter from a crime scene.” A federal judge said it reminded him of a “broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.” DCist suggested we ditch metaphor altogether and change the word “gerrymander” to “Marymander.”

It would be an apt name. Though both parties carve up states in partisan self-interest, the Democrats dominating Maryland’s assembly are particularly aggressive -- and creative -- when it comes to the electoral map. In 2002, they shifted thousands of black voters from Al Wynn’s majority-minority District 4 into District 8, just to oust longtime Republican Representative Connie Morella. In 2012, they knocked out 86-year old incumbent Roscoe Bartlett by chopping his district in half and gluing it to a wealthy Democratic suburb near D.C. Bartlett lost by 20 points. Democrats now control seven of eight House seats.

Miffed, the GOP put the new borders to a vote with a referendum question on Tuesday’s ballot. Many Democrats shared the feeling that the gerrymandering had gone too far, but Question 5 was always something of a long shot. Nobody gets that passionate about redistricting. Despite Washington Post and Baltimore Sun editorials begging voters to undo the gerrymander, Marylanders upheld the law by the same margin that they voted for Obama.

Since the ballot lacked pictures, voters did not get to see the most persuasive bit of evidence: the twisted 3rd District belonging to John Sarbanes, which touches upon the metro areas of D.C., Baltimore, and Annapolis. Comedy Central’s election blog Indecision recently called it the ugliest district in the nation. A geospatial analysis firm named it the least compact district in the nation on two of four measures. The firm also ranks Maryland as the most gerrymandered state.

Though Sarbanes was never in danger of losing his race, the latest changes gave him wealthy Democratic voters from Montgomery County—potential donors for a future Senate campaign. Many Democrats were angered by this move, which came at the expense of black congresswoman Donna Edwards. Residents were “treated as pawns,” County Councilman Phil Andrews fumed on the Washington Post editorial page.

I spent Election Day driving from tendril to tendril of District 3, trying to find what its voters, fused together by partisan politics, had in common.

I began at at Cashell Elementary in Olney, a mostly-white D.C. suburb with grand colonial houses and a 200-acre country club. Money magazine once ranked it 17th on its list of best places to live, with average households making over $120,000. On Election Day, the school’s parking lot was crowded with luxury cars.

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Here, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2:1, I found apologetic liberals who opposed the gerrymandering on principle. “I have nothing against partisan line-drawing,” said Art Brodsky, a public relations consultant. “But when they start making fun of us on the Daily Show, that’s when it gets ridiculous.”

To sway votes, Brodsky was passing out flyers showing the new borders. “It’s a visual argument,” he said. But most people either hadn’t heard of it, or just shrugged.

“It is what it is,” said Edith Kirk, a tax accountant who has lived in the area for 30 years and three district changes. “I don’t like it but I’m going to vote for it.”

Twenty minutes away in White Oak, another D.C. suburb, there are five times as many Democrats as there are Republicans. The community is less affluent and also more ethnically diverse: 50 percent of residents are black and 9 percent are Asian. A fifth identify as Latino.

Robert Bates, a former civil servant, said he supported the redistricting because it was tit for tat. “In Texas, they’re switching the districts around to get more Republicans in,” he said. “You can’t just let them do it and not do it in this state.”

But retired teacher Tom Helfand’s conscience got the better of him. “I’m glad that Roscoe Bartlett is going to lose, but this was a dirty way to do it,” he said.

White Oak and Olney anchor a stretch of solidly Democratic Maryland that was moved into District 3 to shore up Sarbanes’s incumbency. Votes here balance out the influence of the more conservative neighborhoods near Annapolis, the state capital an hour away. There, at Germantown Elementary just outside downtown, I met many independent voters who voted for Romney. All were outraged about what they correctly pegged as a liberal conspiracy.

“They were clearly drawn to dilute the representation,” said Mark German, a realtor who voted for Romney (he said does not trust Obama).

Annapolis is ringed by these neighborhoods of prim white houses. The small towns carpet the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, where on maps the peninsulas look like chicken strips. District 3 takes a bite out of the tip of each strip, leaving those parts cut off from the rest of the district. “Ferrymandering” is the term that Brodsky used to describe it.

A bridge away, Cape St. Clare is a white middle-class town of 8,000 that overlooks the Bay. The town is becoming more affluent. In the past ten years, the median income rose from $70,000 to $90,000. Now, a new development of McMansions abuts a neighborhood of low-slung bungalows with rusty trucks parked in the driveways.

Republicans outnumber Democrats here, and the precinct I visited broke 53-43 for Romney. Residents tend to bristle at reporters.

“You’re a brave guy,” said Margaret Wein, a Republican who said she voted against the new districts. “When the party that’s already been in power for over 40 years has to redistrict to keep that power, in a way that I feel is unconstitutional, that’s a sad state of affairs,” she said. “I’d feel the same way if I saw the Republicans doing it.”

An hour to the north, the 3rd District wraps around Baltimore and hits a neighborhood that is also on a peninsula, but which has long since gentrified. Federal Hill, on a spit of land in Baltimore Harbor, is a distinctly posh cluster of rowhouses, where a pet grooming store shares a street with American Apparel. Girl Scouts selling cookies had set up across from the polling places, calling out that they took credit cards. The city overall went 87-11 for Obama, but this neighborhood is slightly more conservative. On the turnout sheet at Holy Cross church, Democrats edged out Republicans about 2:1.

Several voters were misled by the description of the law on the ballot, which reads: “Establishes the boundaries for the State’s eight United States Congressional Districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution.”

Nothing on the ballot indicates how certain districts had been tweaked to ensure victory, nor why anyone would have petitioned to challenge the new boundaries.

“It sounded like it was following the census,” said Courteney, a data analyst and Democrat who declined to give her last name. “It sounded reasonable.” She admitted she did not know what the borders looked like.

Just a couple miles away is the east side of Baltimore, where the crumbling houses and drug corners once served as backdrops for The Wire. District 3 gives this area a wide berth, swinging around to the northeast through Belair-Edison, a low-to-middle income neighborhood that is 87 percent black and has a median income of $43,000. Unemployment is at 14%.

The corner store here has bars on its windows and bulletproof glass guarding the cashier, who hands you your cigarettes through a slot. A woman who pointed me to the polling place said she was voting for “Mitt.”

“No you’re not,” cackled her friend.

“No I’m not,” she said.

At Brehms Lane elementary, a man in line laughed at me. “We’re all voting for Obama!” he said. Turning to the crowd, he added: “And if you’re not voting for Obama, get out of line!”

Democratic gerrymanders often slice up communities of color like prized morsels to shore up the vote in other districts. Residents of Belair-Edison have been split into three districts—District 7 to the west and District 2 to the east, separated by the tiniest strand of District 3, which goes on to the rich Baltimore suburb of Towson. In two minutes, it is possible to walk across three constituencies. But none of the people I talked to knew about this, and when I tried to explain it, no one cared.

It was a reaction I had gotten used to.