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Government & Politics

Redistricting Expert Testifies That New Congressional Map Will Likely Result in 7-1 Partisan Breakdown

Screenshot of Maryland's new congressional map
The Maryland Congressional District map passed by the Democratic majority in the General Assembly in December has been challenged in court. Screenshot.

Maryland’s new congressional map will likely produce the same 7-1 partisan breakdown as the previous map, an expert for the state said during a trial for a pair of challenges against the new map Thursday.

Allan Jay Lichtman, an American University history professor and redistricting expert, testified that although Maryland’s reconfigured 1st Congressional District will be more competitive for Democrats, it will likely result in a Republican win in 2022.

Lichtman noted that midterm election years have historically been difficult for candidates in the party of the president, and he expects this year to be tough for Democratic congressional candidates.

In Maryland’s previous congressional map, which was enacted in 2011, Maryland’s 1st District included portions of northern Harford, Baltimore and Carroll counties with the Eastern Shore to create a heavily Republican district. Maryland’s lone congressional Republican, U.S. Rep. Andrew P. Harris, handily won reelection there.

In the map the General Assembly enacted during a December special session, however, the 1st Congressional District crosses the Chesapeake Bay to include portions of central Anne Arundel County and has its northern terminus in southeastern Harford County. That new district would have narrowly swung for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, Lichtman said, but he said that won’t be enough to guarantee a win for Democrats in 2022.

Republicans on the Eastern Shore have routinely outperformed expectations with the share of the vote they win, Lichtman said in arguing that the district would likely swing Republican in the upcoming election.

Lichtman also said that, to the extent that the district was drawn to be more competitive for Democrats in 2022, some degree of politics is inevitable when a legislative body is tasked with redistricting. He also said there was “no indication” that the state’s enacted map was a gerrymander.

“You have to strike a balance in democratic government between political values and other considerations,” he said.

Assistant Attorney General Andrea Trento made similar arguments in court hearings leading up to the trial, arguing that by entrusting the “political branches” of government with redistricting, the framers of the Maryland Constitution expected redistricting to be a partisan process.

Former Maryland Secretary of State John T. Willis testified that mapmakers need to consider a slew of factors when creating new congressional districts, including unnecessarily shaking up existing representation.

The trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court is for a pair of challenges to Maryland’s new congressional districts. One challenge, Szeliga v. Lamone, is brought by Republican voters from all eight of Maryland’s congressional districts — including Delegates Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore and Harford counties) and Del. Christopher T. Adams (R-Lower Shore) — and charges that the new map violates the state constitution by diluting Republican votes.

Another challenge, brought by Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington) and Judicial Watch, a national conservative group, also charges that the map violates the state’s constitutional requirement that “each legislative district be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due Regard shall be given to natural boundaries and political subdivisions.”

That provision has historically been interpreted by the Maryland Court of Appeals to apply to state legislative districts and not congressional ones.

Strider Dickson, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the Szeliga case, grilled Willis over the dwindling number of Republicans in Maryland’s congressional delegation. Willis was the chair of a redistricting commission for then-governor Parris N. Glendening (D) in 2001. Dickson noted that Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, then largely centered in Montgomery County, was represented by a Republican before it was redrawn for the election of 2002. That year, then-challenger Chris Van Hollen (D) ousted U.S. Rep. Connie Morella (R).

The map in place between the 1992 and 2000 elections resulted in a 4-4 partisan breakdown in Maryland’s congressional delegation as recently as the 2000 election, but Willis said relying on party affiliation alone is an inaccurate way to decipher the partisan breakdown of a map. He said Morella was a “pro-labor, progressive Republican,” explaining her victories.

The map drawn for 2002 produced a reliably 6-2 split, but in 2011, the 6th District was redrawn to favor Democrats and the 1st District was made more solidly Republican, leading to the current 7-1 breakdown.

Plaintiffs in both lawsuits want the new congressional map blocked, and plaintiffs in the Judicial Watch case want the court to substitute one drawn by the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission, a panel convened by Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R). That panel included three Republicans, three Democrats and three unaffiliated voters. Hogan appointed the panel’s three co-chairs, who then selected the remaining six commission members.

Hogan directed the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission to start from scratch and not consider where incumbents live when drawing maps. His mandates for the commission drew questions from Democratic lawmakers during the special session, and on Thursday, Lichtman likewise questioned the commission’s independence since it was convened by a single Republican elected official.

Hogan said last year that he was taking a hands-off approach to the commission and that he would have “no involvement” with the maps.

Lichtman also criticized the partisan makeup of the panel and said there was an “extraordinary underrepresentation” of Democrats on the commission. He noted that Democrats make up well over half of registered voters in Maryland, but only three were included on the panel.

The map enacted by lawmakers was drawn by the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission, which was convened by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County). Jones and Ferguson were members of that panel, alongside two other Democratic legislative leaders and two Republican legislative leaders. The Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission was chaired by Karl Aro, a former head of the nonpartisan Department of Legislative Services.

Former governors file brief in support of map challenges 

A group of former governors filed a brief supporting plaintiffs in the Szeliga v. Lamone lawsuit.

The governors include former North Carolina Gov. Michael F. Easley (D), former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), former Massachusetts governor William Weld (R) and former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (R).

In the brief, the governors argue that recent successful challenges against congressional plans in state courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania show that “extreme partisan gerrymandering” violates the Maryland Constitution. Courts in North Carolina and Pennsylvania have found that partisan gerrymandering violates their state constitutions’ requirements for “free” elections, the governors wrote, noting that Maryland’s constitution requires elections be “free and frequent.”

“As the North Carolina and Pennsylvania Supreme Courts have recently recognized in challenges based on constitutional provisions similar to the ones involved here, extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the principles of free elections and equal protection, and the freedoms of speech and association,” their brief reads.

The former governors also submitted a brief supporting challenges to the state’s legislative map at the Maryland Court of Appeals.

Lichtman testified Thursday that he didn’t believe the newly enacted congressional map constitutes an “extreme partisan gerrymander,” noting that the map is generally more compact than the previous congressional map.

The congressional redistricting trial is set to conclude on Friday and presiding Senior Judge Lynne Battaglia said Thursday that she would rule sometime next week. Battaglia said parties would then have five days to appeal to the Court of Appeals, and said she expects the high court to take the case in April.

The Court of Appeals recently delayed Maryland’s primary election from June 28 to July 19.