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Groups question legality of new districts

Legal experts cite high bar for overturning maps

By John Fritze and Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

7:51 PM EDT, October 7, 2011

WASHINGTON —

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Two disparate groups suggested Friday that Maryland's proposed congressional map might illegally dilute the power of minority voters, though national experts warned that any potential lawsuit would face a high hurdle in federal court.

A Prince George's County political action committee and a national watchdog group contend that the proposed districts do not adequately represent the state's black and Hispanic populations. The accusations came a day after Western Maryland Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett expressed similar concerns.

Most federal lawsuits filed over redistricting plans center on the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from drawing new political boundaries that weaken the voting power of minorities. The groups argue that the new maps in Maryland do not go far enough to protect those voters.

"The problems in Maryland are substantive enough that somebody could bring a good-faith lawsuit," said Greg Rabidoux, national redistricting director with Common Cause, a watchdog group that has criticized the new map for dividing Hispanic voters into multiple districts.

"It's pushing the political envelope just about as far as you can push it," he said.

Nationwide, lawsuits filed as part of the once-in-a-decade redistricting process are common — litigation is under way or already resolved in 25 states — but a protracted legal battle in Maryland could leave officials with little time to complete a map before the state's April 3 primary election.

Maryland officials say they closely consulted state and federal law as they crafted the proposal, a version of which will go to the General Assembly for approval this month. Joseph C. Bryce, Gov. Martin O'Malley's top legislative aide, said officials were mindful of requests that had been made by the NAACP and other groups.

The proposed map would maintain the state's two minority districts: the 7th District, represented by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, and the 4th District, represented by Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a Prince George's County Democrat. A third district, held by Southern Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, is expected to become a minority district over time as African-Americans continue to move there.

The percentage of black residents in both districts would fall slightly, according to an analysis by the Maryland Democratic Party, but remain above 54 percent.

Del. Aisha N. Braveboy, a vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus in the General Assembly, said she is still reviewing the proposed map but added that she is concerned that Edwards' district is "very strangely drawn," which could, in her view, raise legal questions. The new district would include a high concentration of black voters in Prince George's County along with more conservative whites in Anne Arundel County.

Braveboy, a Prince George's Democrat, also said it is "incomprehensible" to reduce the number of black voters in Hoyer's district, even if only by a few tenths of a percentage point, since the black population in that part of the state has grown.

Braveboy declined to discuss the possibility of a legal challenge until the final map is approved.

Bartlett, a Republican whose conservative 6th District would become far more Democratic under the plan, was among the first to raise the possibility of a lawsuit since the new map was released. After a meeting with O'Malley in Annapolis on Thursday, Bartlett said he wanted to help the governor "strengthen the confidence and trust" of state voters that the maps reflect the state's minority population.

He would not say whether he would join a lawsuit.

On Friday, the Fannie Lou Hamer-PAC, a Prince George's County group, said it would support a lawsuit because it is disappointed that the new map fails to immediately create a third minority district.

"Our brief analysis is it does not abide by the Voting Rights Act," said Carletta Fellows, a spokeswoman for the group, which formed last year.

Tim Storey, a redistricting expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that out of about 40 lawsuits filed nationally over the last redistricting a decade ago, courts forced only about 10 to 12 states to make substantial changes.

"People who do this have gotten better at understanding how to navigate" the law, Storey said.

Kim Propeack, policy director for Casa de Maryland, said the immigrant advocacy group is more focused on the upcoming battle over new districts for members of the General Assembly.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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