ANNAPOLIS — Whoever is elected Maryland’s governor in 2018 will have tremendous power to lead the redrawing of the state’s congressional district boundaries — unless legislation takes the process out of politicians’ hands.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan pushed his version of congressional redistricting reform Friday at the State House. His bill competes with proposals from General Assembly Democrats.
“In today’s political climate, it can often seem rare or nearly impossible to find something that nearly everyone everywhere on both sides of the political spectrum can agree on. Nonpartisan redistricting reform and protecting the most fundamental of American rights — for free and fair elections — is one of those rare issues,” Hogan said during a press conference.
A Goucher College poll in February found that 75 percent of Maryland voters support an independent commission to draw district lines, compared to 19 percent supporting elected officials making those decisions.
After each decennial U.S. Census, Maryland redraws congressional and legislative voting district lines. Under current law, the governor creates maps, which the General Assembly must change or accept.
In the last redistricting, which took effect in 2012, Frederick County’s congressional districts changed dramatically. The county was split as part of a shift making the 6th District more Democratic.
A federal First Amendment case challenging that change is pending in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said there has been a “seismic shift” in support for redistricting reform.
“As Maryland acts, we do not act alone,” Bevan-Dangel said, pointing to pushes for change at the federal level and through the courts.
House and Senate committees heard several redistricting bills Friday afternoon.
Hogan has proposed a bill based on recommendations from a Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission he established in 2015.
The bill would create a board to draw congressional district maps and receive public feedback on boundaries. Boundaries would focus on factors such as compactness and respect for political subdivisions, such as counties and municipalities.
The bill requires the commission to draw lines without regard to party affiliation or where incumbent politicians live. It would let the Legislature reject the map by a two-thirds majority vote.
“Our reforms, we think, would make Maryland, rather than the worst in the country, the best,” said Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies, who lives in Frederick County. Olson is co-chairman of Hogan’s redistricting reform commission.
Hogan has faced pushback in the Democratic-majority Legislature, where some lawmakers don’t want to potentially change the balance of power in Washington, D.C., by acting alone. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) has said he would prefer national or multistate solutions.
Pending bills require collaboration between states, which would move forward with redistricting together to bring better maps home while offsetting power shifts in Washington.
Delegate Alfred C. Carr Jr., D-Montgomery, introduced a bill called the “Potomac Compact For Fair Representation.” It would create an independent commission to redraw congressional districts in Maryland and Virginia and move to proportional voting.
Sen. Craig Zucker, D-Montgomery, has proposed a bill in which six Mid-Atlantic states — Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina — would have to vote and move together to a nonpartisan congressional districting process.
Hogan doesn’t back a multistate proposal.
“What sounds really good really just is a way of stopping progress,” the governor said Friday. “... Certainly, I push other states to do it. But I don’t want to wait until they decide to do it before we take action to clean up our situation right here.”
A ‘perfect storm’
Bevan-Dangle said increasing pressure to solve partisan gerrymandering — including a commitment from former President Barack Obama to challenge the practice — creates a “perfect storm” for change.
This month, Maryland’s seven Democratic U.S. House members — including John Delaney (D-6th) and Jamie Raskin (D-8th) — asked Hogan to lean on Republican majorities in Washington for bipartisan national redistricting reform.
Delegation members have supported at least one of two pending bills in Congress.
The push comes as a legal challenge to the state’s current congressional district map remains in federal court.
While the lawsuit has survived several attempts to have it dismissed, the focus has narrowed to whether the dilution of Republican votes in the 6th District violates the First Amendment right to free speech.
During redistricting after the 2010 census, Frederick County was split as the 6th District became more Democratic. The Democratic-oriented city of Frederick and part of heavily Democratic Montgomery County are in the reworked 6th District. Other parts of Frederick County moved to the 8th District.
Three Frederick County residents are plaintiffs in the case. A judge recently ruled that top-level Maryland lawmakers, including House Speaker Michael Busch and Miller, must submit testimony.
It is part of a string of cases testing the constitutionality of redistricting maps based on partisan, rather than racial, gerrymandering.
The Supreme Court, in a 2004 opinion written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, declared the court should no longer hear cases alleging political gerrymandering. However, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the issue might be decided in a future case.
Bevan-Dangle pointed to other pending redistricting challenges in courts. Last year, a three-judge federal panel found that the Wisconsin legislature illegally drew districts to benefit Republicans. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court.
“Justice Kennedy has the whole country in his hand,” Olson said.