Dueling Commissions Foreshadow Partisan Battle Over Redistricting

As the Census Bureau releases updated population data, Maryland officials prepare to redraw congressional and legislative boundaries, with two separate commissions expected to propose new maps. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

This year marks the first time in many decades that Maryland has had a Republican governor when legislative districts are redrawn, setting the stage for an unusual and contentious process as two separate commissions are set to propose new district maps.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) created the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission earlier this year to draw  legislative and congressional maps that he will propose as a bill to the General Assembly.

That commission — which consists of three Republicans, three Democrats and three unaffiliated voters — finished its initial round of public hearings in July ahead of the release Thursday of detailed U.S. Census data used for redistricting.

But the General Assembly, where Democrats hold a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate, will vote on whether to approve the redrawn state legislative and congressional districts proposed by the governor.

In Maryland, the governor is required to introduce legislative maps, but statutes are silent on who needs to introduce congressional maps.

Hogan plans to introduce both congressional and legislative maps that are drawn by his Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, but the General Assembly is allowed to make changes to those maps and draw their own.

Although Hogan could veto the proposed congressional maps, the General Assembly easily overrode his vetoes of police and education reforms during the 2021 legislative session.

Constitutionally, Hogan can’t veto the General Assembly’s legislative maps, but his proposed maps become law if the General Assembly doesn’t pick an alternative within the first half of the 2022 legislative session.

House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) and Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) announced their own redistricting panel, the bipartisan Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission, last month.

Their commission will conduct its own hearings and draw its own set of maps. The legislative commission consists of four Democrats including Jones and Ferguson, two top Republicans and is chaired by Karl Aro, the former executive director of the non-partisan Department of Legislative Services.

Legislative leaders are considering convening a special session in December to draw the state’s proposed congressional maps, and plan to work off of maps drawn by the legislative commission. With the U.S. Census redistricting data being released this Thursday, both commissions are set to conduct their own public hearings and draw their respective maps in the coming months.

Maryland’s current congressional maps have been held up nationwide as examples of partisan gerrymandering: A federal judge once described the state’s 3rd District as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state,” and the state’s 6th District was subject to a legal battle that advanced to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices decided it was not the court’s place to weigh in on state-level redistricting disputes.

After the 2010 Census, Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley’s redistricting commission, the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee, conducted its own public hearings. But the real work of map-drawing was largely done away from the public eye by incumbents and political insiders, according to depositions from the Benisek v. Lamone case that was argued at the Supreme Court.

“Part of my intent was to create a map that, all things being legal and equal, would, nonetheless, be more likely to elect more Democrats rather than less,” O’Malley said in a deposition as part of that case.

Those maps went to referendum in 2012 and 64% of voters voted in favor of them. One lawsuit from the conservative group Judicial Watch sought to nullify that referendum and charged that its ballot language was misleading, but that effort was unsuccessful.

Republicans are skeptical of the General Assembly’s redistricting efforts. Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel County) and House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany County), both named as members of the legislative commission, said they were caught off guard by its creation. Simonaire said he believes the commission’s final vote could come down to a party-line split.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and make a bold prediction that the vote on the commission will be five to two,” Simonaire said.

Buckel said he favors the governor’s commission over the legislative panel because its members are residents rather than elected officials deciding on their own districts.

“I’m a fan of that effort to try to get politics and politicians, to the greatest extent possible, out of the redistricting process,” Buckel said.

Simonaire said he believes the proposed congressional districts could look “nicer” and not be as meandering and jagged as some of the state’s current districts, but he remained cynical about whether the map-making process will actually be bipartisan.

“I’ve been around long enough to realize that the Democrats are going to do what they want,” Simonaire said.

Hogan said he’s taking a hands-off approach to the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission.

“Those are going to be real, fair maps,” Hogan said. “I’m going to have no involvement in them.”

Some Democratic lawmakers, on the other hand, say Hogan already tipped the scales of partisanship by requiring his commission to incorporate single-member House legislative districts in their proposed maps.

Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins (D-Montgomery) said that Hogan’s single-member mandate for the commission means the governor is “exerting a lot of influence over a commission that he says is independent.”

“Redistricting is, I think, an inherently political process, and the fact that this is something that the governor is demanding doesn’t make it appear to be some kind of balanced and thoughtful approach or idea,” Wilkins said.

Maryland uses a mix of single- and multi-member legislative districts in the House of Delegates, but some state residents want to see the state shift to only single-member districts.

Political analysts believe that a shift to single-member districts statewide would lead to Republican gains in the General Assembly, this publication previously reported, and Republican lawmakers who testified at the first round of Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission public hearings overwhelmingly supported single-member districts.

But support for single-member districts doesn’t come only from Republicans: Comptroller and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter V.R. Franchot endorsed the system in 2019.

Other proponents of single-member districts argue they make elected officials more accessible and accountable because they cover a smaller area, and cut back on resources needed for political newcomers to challenge incumbents. Some Maryland residents who testified in favor of single-member districts argued they allow more specialized local representation.

“When a single member represents the district, then that district calls one person that represents their local concerns,” Baltimore County resident Bernadette Hoffman Wild said at a public hearing last month.

Some proponents of multi-member districts say they make it easier for women and people of color to get elected. Michelle C. Whittaker, a Montgomery County Democratic activist, told members of the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission in July that multi-member districts are part of why Maryland’s General Assembly leads other states in inclusive representation.

“We have increased women’s representation through having multi-member districts at the legislative level, and we’ve had the opportunity to elect more people of color,” Whittaker said.

Maryland’s constitution allows lawmakers to use both single- and multi-member districts in their proposed maps, reading “nothing herein shall prohibit the subdivision of any one or more of the legislative districts for the purpose of electing members of the House of Delegates into three (3) single-member delegate districts or one (1) single-member delegate district and one (1) multi-member delegate district.”

In an emailed statement, Jones underscored the fact that the Maryland Constitution allows the state’s current hybrid model.

“The Maryland Constitution specifically provides for both single and multimember districts,” Jones said. “It’s a unique system that has made our House of Delegates one of the most diverse legislative bodies in the country. It also provides for diversity of thought, sometimes electing both Republicans and Democrats to the House from the same district. It may not fit the partisan goals of some but I think it provides voters with more choices while balancing the need for community representation.”

What’s next

Granular U.S. Census redistricting data is being released in a raw, untabulated form on Thursday. Maryland Secretary of Planning Robert S. McCord previously told members of the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission that officials will need an additional four weeks after its release to adjust the data to comply with Maryland law and to have incarcerated individuals reallocated to their last known address.

Both commissions are planning separate rounds of public hearings following the release of the data. The long-anticipated data was delayed by months after the COVID-19 pandemic waylaid Census operations. Reapportionment data released earlier this year showed that Maryland will keep eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

While the General Assembly will have the final say over legislative and congressional maps, one group has already formed to promote maps from the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission: Fair Maps Maryland, an effort by former Hogan communications strategist Doug Mayer, former Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman (R) and former state Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County).

It may be some time until both commissions propose their respective maps, but Mayer has said he’s confident the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission will propose maps worth supporting because that panel isn’t made up of politicians.

“If you think that politicians can be trusted to draw their own maps and pick their own voters in a fair way, then I’ve got some waterfront properties in Arizona to sell you,” Mayer said.

Wilkins isn’t a member of the legislative advisory commission, but she’s been at the forefront of voting access efforts in the General Assembly and served as a leader on Census-related issues last year. She said she’s confident in the legislative commission because its mission is about “hearing from constituents on their views without us tipping the scales on what should take place when it comes to redistricting.”

“I think that the process that the legislature has outlined is much more open,” Wilkins said. “We haven’t tipped the scales and asked residents anything in particular or created a commission that already has a particular charge in terms of how the district should be drawn. I think that we’re going to see a very open process from the legislature in the coming months.”

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