Opinion: Is Maryland Ready for Redistricting?

The Maryland State House and Annapolis at sunset. Photo from stock.adobe.com.

Maryland has the look of a gerrymandered state. I am not talking about the districts but the state itself. No other state has as many irregular borders as we do. Then we have counties like Baltimore that looks like a steam shovel trying to pick up Baltimore City. Then throw in some of the most heavily gerrymandered districts in the country and you have one of the most difficult States in the country to redistrict.

There are now two commissions dedicated to redistricting, the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission (MCRC) and the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission (LRAC). MCRC is a bipartisan commission created by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. that has been given mandates of what he thinks districts should look like: 1. House of Delegates districts should be single-member wherever possible; 2. they should be geographically compact, follow geographical and political boundaries, and not take into account the political affiliation of residents; 3. they cannot know the addresses of congressmen and legislators.

To the question of whether Maryland is ready for redistricting, let’s start by looking at MCRC activities to date and comparing them to what another states independent redistricting commission has been doing. Michigan and Colorado have had the most active commissions in the country. The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission, which started in September of 2020 and the Colorado Independent Redistricting Commissions (CIRC) which started on March 15, 2021. Since CIRC started only a month and a half before MCRC, it appeared the best state to use to compare their redistricting efforts with MCRC. Colorado broke up into two commissions, one for legislative districts and one for congressional districts.

Budget

CIRC – Has a budget to do what they need to get the job done.

MCRC – Governor Hogan has provided little money to the commission except through whatever help the Department of Planning can provide.

Staff

CIRC – Has it’s own nonpartisan staff supported by a separate budget. The staff has produced a number of documents on redistricting for the CIRC and has been a big help in moving them toward creating maps.

MCRC – Is dependent on the Department of Planning. It has taken the Department of Planning weeks to just provide MCRC a list of names as candidates for an adviser on Asian-Pacific issues and a decent map of Maryland.

Legal Counsel

CIRC – Have hired outside legal counsel.

MCRC – No budget for outside legal counsel. The commission members are doing their own legal research. They have apparently not even asked for free legal counsel from Maryland Attorney Brian Frosh. Is it because Frosh is a Democrat? Not sure how that would be a problem since they have Governor Hogan’s Secretary of Planning Robert McCord sitting in all the meetings apparently acting as a minder of the commission.

Meetings

CIRC – Has had over 60 meetings of the full commission and subcommittees not including public hearings, many of the meetings lasting 2 to 4 hours.

MCRC – Has had 9 non-public hearing meetings lasting no more just over an hour.  They seem to think they only need meet at the most 2 hours a week to get the job done.

Census Bureau

CIRC  – Early on had a hour and 20 minute meeting with Census Bureau to get their advice.

MCRC – No meeting with Census Bureau yet.

Mapping Consultant

CIRC – Hired an outside mapping consultant.

MCRC – No budget to hire one.

Mapping

CIRC – Decided to go ahead and use the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data to begin mapping. Because of this, they have already issued preliminary maps and are getting a large amount of specific public comment. When the final Census data comes out they will adjust the maps to fit the new data. This means considerably less additional work will need to be done to meet their deadline.

MCRC – Has not even considered using ACS data and is just going to wait until September for the final Census data to be released and uploaded into computers before they start mapping. Though the Census bureau is expected to release those number on August 16, they will not be in a useable form until early to mid September. If the Census does not release the final date on August 16, it will make meeting all deadlines the MCRC has set very difficult.

There are other areas that I could compare CIRC and MCRC but these are the major ones. All of them would show that CIRC has done a lot more work than MCRC. While it may be possible to just sit down and start redistricting without a lot of preliminary work, I do not know enough about redistricting mapping to say one way or the other. But the amount of work that Colorado has been doing to prepare to start redistricting suggests otherwise.

Recently announced is the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission (LRAC) created by the leadership of the legislature. This is something that should have been announced back in April or even last September, not after Hogan has created his commission. They are starting out by repeating the same work the MCRC has already done, holding public hearings. Do they really believe they are going to hear public comment that is much different than MCRC has already heard? This seems to be more show than necessary work. They have not announced any guiding principles for redistricting. We do not know if they are going to put any more work into creating maps than MCRC has done so far. It would not be surprising if their maps end up a lot different than those created by MCRC.

At this time, I have no expectations the legislature will accept any part of the maps that MCRC creates. The Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission should have included the legislature as a stakeholder at the table in an advisory role since they have the final say on what the maps will look like unlike other independent commissions around the United States. It might have avoided the creation of the LRAC.

In conclusion, neither the MRCR nor the LRAC seem to want invest the time and effort needed to learn how to redistrict maps as Colorado and Michigan have done.  At a minimum, they could at least spend time studying the work both have done to create fair maps that is available online.

So what do you think — is Maryland ready for redistricting?

— EDWARD L.R. JOHNSON

The writer is the co-leader of the Maryland Legislative Coalition, a partnership of 30,000 members and grass-roots groups focused on state government.