Nearly two dozen House Democrats have signed on to a Republican-sponsored bill that seeks to reduce the role of partisan intent in the drawing of congressional boundaries.
The measure, HB 463, is sponsored by Del. Michael Malone (R-Anne Arundel), who was an anti-gerrymandering activist prior to his appointment to the General Assembly in 2015.
His bill would place a referendum on the November 2020 ballot. If approved, the Maryland Constitution would be amended to require that “due regard be given to natural boundaries and boundaries of political subdivisions.”
Maryland’s current congressional map, drawn in 2011 by Assembly Democrats and then-Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D), is a notorious tangle of sprawling, misshapen districts. For many, Maryland’s map is a poster child for the over-use of voter data and partisan intent, though the state is far from alone.
In videotaped depositions taken after a group of Republican voters from Western Maryland’s 6th District challenged the map in court, state leaders acknowledged using intricate data on voting patterns to advantage Democratic congressional candidates.
A state that had a 4-4 congressional delegation as recently as 2002 is now represented by seven Democrats and just one Republican.
“I commend Delegate Malone for introducing this common sense legislation to prevent the unconscionable gerrymandering of Maryland’s congressional districts,” said Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) in a news release distributed by the lawmaker.
“Our administration has been fighting since day one to bring free and fair elections, the most basic tenet of our democracy, back to our state.”
Hogan’s enthusiasm for the bill is hardly surprising – it aligns with legislation he has pushed since he took office in 2015. But the support of Democrats is noteworthy.
Malone’s bill has the backing of 64 lawmakers, nearly half the chamber. All 42 House Republicans are sponsoring the bill, along with 22 Democrats.
Some Democrats have been hesitant to embrace redistricting reform in Maryland, pointing out that Republicans regularly draw district boundaries in their favor in states where they are the dominant political party. But others say reform must begin at home.
“We understand it happens on both sides but that doesn’t mean it’s the way we should do things,” said Del. Pamela Queen (D-Montgomery), a co-sponsor.
“I think the fact that it is a bipartisan bill will give us some sort of credibility.”
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said Malone’s measure “is sending a message to the leadership here in Annapolis, to the presiding officers, that it’s time to do something. Let’s get serious about this.”
The Supreme Court heard two redistricting cases last year — one from Maryland, the other from Wisconsin, a state controlled by Republicans. The high court declined to establish the firm benchmarks against gerrymandering that reform advocates have long craved.
Last fall, a three-judge federal panel in Baltimore ordered the legislature to redraw Maryland’s map by March 6, to be used just once, in 2020. (All states will draw their congressional and legislative maps in 2021, after the decennial Census.)
Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to review the Maryland map again in March.
Nevertheless, a bipartisan panel appointed by Hogan is planning to release a proposed new map with a redrawn 6th District – which will have a domino effect in other districts. Whether the legislature acts on the proposal before the General Assembly session ends on April 8 seems unlikely, absent a quick Supreme Court ruling.
In his State of the State address last week, Hogan implored lawmakers to put his redistricting reform proposal to a vote. That bill would take the power to draw political boundaries out of the hands of lawmakers and give it to a non-partisan commission.
“Please do not hide this legislation in a drawer again this year,” he said.
“Listen to the will of the people of Maryland and finally bring this bill to the floor of both chambers for an up-or-down vote.”
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) expressed hope that the Supreme Court will establish guidance for states to follow, to bring an end to the partisan tit-for-tat.
“We’re hoping that they come up with some uniform rules and guidelines, respect county boundaries. … respect natural boundaries, [with districts that are] squares and circles rather than gerrymandered districts.”
Malone’s bill would place a redistricting reform referendum on the 2020 ballot. No committee chairmen or top leaders in the House have signed on as co-sponsors.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) was asked about the measure by a reporter on Friday.
Before he could answer, an aide, Jeremy Baker, interjected. “We’re not talking about redistricting as long as there’s a Supreme Court case in play. We refer all those questions to the Attorney General’s office.
“There’s your answer,” Busch said, turning toward the door.
But Democratic leaders’ silence on the bill has not dissuaded some rank-and-file members from embracing it.
“I didn’t sign onto the bill but I think it’s a phenomenal idea. I support fairness,” said Del. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles).
“We’re torn between keeping up with other states and leading by example. Sometimes you have to take the risk, lead by example, and maybe other states will follow. Because we have an obligation.”