Hogan, Other Redistricting Reformers Give it the Old College Try

Maryland's congressional map.

The congressional map Maryland has used since 2012 is so wildly contorted and misshapen, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear lawsuits against it not just once, but twice.

Still, Republican Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s efforts to reform the state’s process for drawing congressional boundaries have floundered. They are routinely stuck in a drawer or voted down, usually in committee.

While this year’s anti-gerrymandering bills are likely to meet the same fate, one measure is quietly gaining momentum and could pose more of a challenge for legislative leaders.

House Bill 1491 seeks to place an “anti-gerrymandering” constitutional amendment onto the November ballot.

If approved, future legislatures would have to adhere to the same standards when drawing congressional districts that the Maryland Constitution requires of state legislative districts — namely, that they be compact, contiguous, of equal population, and that “due regard” be given for natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.

Unlike Hogan’s remedy of choice — the independent redistricting commission — HB 1491 has attracted a large and bipartisan backing. Nearly half of the House of delegates — 65 members, including 23 Democrats — have signed on to Del. Michael Malone’s measure.

“It shows how close there is to being a majority on this bill and how broad the support is,” said Malone (R-Anne Arundel). “Some of the other bills might do more for ending political gerrymandering, but this is a start. It’s a light lift. It goes in the right direction.”

“It would put a check and a reasonable limit on the gerrymandering,” he added.

The House Rules Committee heard public testimony on several anti-gerrymandering measures on Monday, including Malone’s.

House Bills 341 and 346, both priorities of the Hogan administration, would establish a voter referendum this fall. If approved, the state would create an “impartial” Legislative and Congressional Redistricting and Apportionment Commission made up of three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents.

Future legislative and congressional districts would have to be compact and contiguous, respect natural boundaries, and maintain “the geographical integrity and continuity” of counties and municipalities. The state’s 47 districts would be sub-divided into three single-member delegate districts.

In addition, lawmakers would be forbidden from taking into account how communities have voted in the past, or their voter registration profiles, when drawing potential boundaries, nor could they factor in where incumbents or office-seekers reside. Lawmakers routinely consider such matters when drawing boundaries now.

Retired Judge Alex Williams Jr. and Walter Olson, the co-chairs of the governor’s “emergency” redistricting commission, testified on behalf of both measures, as did Common Cause and the League of Women Voters.

The governor’s commission held seven hearings around the state and issued a set of recommendations. “Everywhere we went, [people said] we should have an independent redistricting commission,” said Williams.

“There’s no perfect solution, and you can’t totally take politics out of the process,” he added. “However we think that the best approach would be to take it out of the hands of legislators.”

Ken Stevens, a citizen who resides in Columbia, said the administration’s proposal fails to reflect real-world realities.

“There are six states with more congressional districts than Maryland where Republican-controlled legislatures try to do as much gerrymandering as they can,” Stevens testified.

“Does anyone really believe that Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina would voluntarily follow the lead of Maryland? … More likely they would laugh at Maryland for shooting themselves in the foot while continuing to gerrymander.”

Lawmakers also heard testimony from Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery), who has proposed a “Potomac Compact,” an agreement with Virginia, a state with a Republican-dominated the General Assembly until recently. Under his plan, the two states would each adopt an independent redistricting commission together or not at all, to neutralize the perceived partisan advantage.

The results of this year’s Census are expected to be released next spring and will provide the basis for next year’s congressional and legislative map-making, which will likely occur in a special session. Hogan’s proposal would likely cost $3.5 million, according to a legislative analysis.

Reznik urged his colleagues to act this year. 2021, the year for legislative action, will be “too late” for reform, he said.
Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.