With the release of the 2020 census data in August, the national battle over redistricting has begun in almost every state in the union, including Maryland, usually accompanied by great weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But – at least at the local level – not in Frederick County.
In most states around the country, politicians from both parties are scheming to reshape voting maps to maximize the number of seats they will have in the U.S. House, in state legislatures and in local governing bodies.
Meanwhile, Frederick County’s nine-member Redistricting Commission is recommending moving two precincts on the fast-growing eastern portion of the county to keep the five County Council districts roughly equal in population. The two districts affected are both represented by Republicans, and the change is unlikely to affect the political makeup of the council.
Call it the opposite of gerrymandering.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a law and public policy think-tank at New York University Law School, is one of the leaders in the effort to end gerrymandering.
“Gerrymandering, the practice of drawing districts to favor one political party or racial group, skews election results, makes races less competitive, hurts communities of color, and thwarts the will of the voters. It leads many Americans to feel their voices don’t matter,” the center says on its website.
We here in Frederick County have seen the results of gerrymandering after the last two national censuses. Democrats who control Maryland’s General Assembly have systematically carved away Republican-held seats in Congress.
After the 2010 census, our county was split in two and linked with Democratic districts in Montgomery County to create two safe Democratic seats where one was formerly held by the GOP.
Maryland Democrats are under pressure to minimize Republican seats, because the GOP is doing exactly the opposite in states where they control the legislature, like Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
In Pennsylvania, after the GOP did redistricting in 2012, Republicans won only 49 percent of the votes statewide in U.S. House races but captured 13 of the 18 House seats. Eventually the state Supreme Court overturned the map.
In Maryland this year, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly have dueling redistricting commissions working on new maps. The governor has appointed three Republicans, three Democrats and three independents to redraw the congressional map. But the Democratic legislators are likely to approve their own map, to maximize the safe seats for their party.
The Brennan Center is a strong advocate for nonpartisan redistricting commissions, and 19 states have adopted some form of this reform. The center and others tried to get the Supreme Court to outlaw gerrymandering in 2019, but the court said the process was up to the states.
The work of our county redistricting commission shows what could be done. The commission strives to keep each of the five districts at about 20 percent of the county population.
District 2 on the east side, represented by Republican Steve McKay, has grown to 21.1 percent, because of new residential construction. At the same time, District 5 in the northern county, represented by Republican Michael Blue, is down to 17.6 percent. All five district grew, but 2 was the fastest.
Since the two districts are contiguous, the commission recommends moving two precincts, Libertytown and Unionville, from District 2 to District 5. That would bring 2 down to 19.5 percent and 5 up to 19.2 percent. All five districts would be within one percentage point of the 20 percent goal.
The redistricting commission was created by the county charter adopted in 2012, another of the wise decisions made by the charter commission. Without it, it is very easy to envision a county executive and council controlled by either party trying to redraw the district map in their own favor.
As the Brennan Center says when advocating for nonpartisan commissions, voters should choose their politicians, instead of politicians choosing their voters.