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Push for referendum on redistricting goes down to wire

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Irene Hopkins could only grasp for an explanation as Republican Del. Nic Kipke showed her the way Anne Arundel County had been cut up on Maryland's congressional map.

"I think they were drunk when they made it up, or at least feeling very spiteful," said the Pasadena woman. "Anne Arundel is a large county, and we should at least be a district unto ourselves."

It was exactly the kind of response Kipke hoped to elicit as he showed the map, which he equated to "spider legs jumping all over the state," to voters from his county on Saturday morning.

Kipke was one of several legislators working feverishly to gather enough signatures before a midnight deadline to force a statewide vote in November on the congressional redistricting plan devised by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and General Assembly leaders.

The governor's office has said the plan "complied with the letter and the spirit of the law."

But if the group succeeds in collecting 55,736 signatures, voters will have a chance to overturn it and force the General Assembly to redraw the map for the 2014 election. Organizers hoped to exceed the number by a substantial margin to account for the 10 percent of signatures likely to be discarded by state election officials because of various errors.

"It's going to be razor close," Kipke said, predicting that a final verdict on the petition count would arrive in about a week.

Republican Del. Neil Parrott said late Saturday night that the group had the minimum number of signatures required, but didn't provide a specific total because the tallying was not complete.

"We're optimistic that it will be on the ballot in November," he said.

The congressional map pushes a swath of Montgomery County into the traditionally Republican 6th District, making Rep. Roscoe Bartlett one of the few GOP incumbents vulnerable this year. But conservatives aren't the only ones angry about the plan. Some Democratic legislators from the Washington suburbs have also supported a referendum, saying the map shreds the large minority population currently included in the 4th District.

The redistricting plan has survived several court challenges despite the fact that judges have said it's an example of partisan gerrymandering. One federal judge described the redesigned 3rd District as "reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state," though he said that didn't make it illegal.

Angry petition signers used similarly descriptive language to deride the map on Saturday.

"I first voted in 1986 and I remember thinking the map was weird back then," said Keith White of Columbia. "But I've never seen anything like this. They're trying to squeeze Republicans out of the state."

He was one of a steady stream of conservative voters who answered Kipke's call to sign petitions Saturday at Glory Days Grill along Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie.

County Executive John Leopold, a Republican, was also among those who showed up to sign. "The idea of gerrymandering to this extent is just excessive," he said. "This is so beyond the pale that it cries out for reform."

The challenge to redistricting has been led by the same group, MDPetitions, that gathered enough signatures to prompt a referendum on the Maryland "Dream Act." Kipke said redistricting is a harder sell because "it's so complicated, and you really have to explain to people why it's important."

He said he has most often succeeded by telling people a vote for the referendum is a vote against O'Malley and by showing them the map, with its diced-up counties and oddly snaking district lines.

This week's heat wave and the Friday storm that left hundreds of thousands without power also did not help with the last-minute push.

Kipke and his supporters said they can't worry that a statewide vote against redistricting would ultimately put the map back in the same hands that designed it in the first place.

"You've got to keep trying," said Clarence Riggs of Pasadena, who wants the district lines decided by a computer algorithm. "If it doesn't work, try again next time. Just don't shut up about it. Ever."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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