A state commission charged with reviewing how Maryland draws its congressional and legislative districts is recommending that politicians cede their power to an independent panel.
The Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission proposes that an independent panel draw the maps — and it would be prohibited from looking at party registration data or voting history while doing its work.
"These reforms would put Maryland in the front ranks of redistricting reform and establish an independent, balanced approach to creating congressional and state legislative districts," the commission wrote in a report issued Tuesday.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan created the commission in August to examine how Maryland could better redraw its congressional and General Assembly district maps after the next U.S. Census. Any changes to the current process would require approval from the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats wary of Hogan's recommendations.
Maryland's current system gives the power to draw congressional districts to the General Assembly and the power to draw state legislative districts to the governor. The state's congressional boundaries have been widely criticized as gerrymandered to benefit the Democrats, who hold a 2-1 voter registration advantage in Maryland.
Hogan said the "overwhelming majority" of state residents want nonpartisan redistricting.
"There's a handful of professional politicians who want to keep things the way the are," Hogan told reporters Tuesday. "We're the most gerrymandered state in the country. We're hoping that they'll listen to some reason."
The latest political map, drawn in 2011 under then-Gov. Martin O'Malley, was upheld by voters at the polls in a referendum. Federal judges have three times upheld it as constitutional, albeit deeply contorted. One judge compared Maryland's 3rd Congressional District to "a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."
Hogan's commission also recommended that future districts be contiguous and follow the boundaries of cities and counties.
The proposed redistricting panel would have nine members — three Democrats, three Republicans and three voters not affiliated with a party — that would draw boundaries and send the maps to the legislature for a vote. If the legislature or the governor rejected the maps, the panel would have a second chance to offer a plan. If that second attempt was rejected, the Maryland Court of Appeals would have the final say in drawing a map.
The proposal was welcomed by state Republicans and the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, whose spokeswoman called the current system "rigged."
"We applaud their final recommendations," Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause, said in an email. She said the commission "has created a road map for getting the insider politics out of our redistricting process."
The Maryland Democratic Party criticized the commission's work and said Republicans are guilty of gerrymandering when they hold the political power.
"Larry Hogan's hand-picked commissioners received their marching orders on the day they were appointed," Pat Murray, Maryland Democratic Party executive director, said in a statement. "The outcome was predetermined by a small group of Republican insiders, the process lacked transparency, and the recommendations are fundamentally flawed."
Any effort to implement the commission's recommendations would need the support of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats. Aides said neither had reviewed the report and would not be available to comment.
In the past, Miller has called congressional redistricting reform a national issue, saying Republican-controlled states have gerrymandered districts to benefit their party. Miller has said Maryland should change its process only if other states do.
The Maryland Republican Party, meanwhile, suggested that Democrats were complaining just because they didn't get their way.
"The Democrat Party is upset today because they could not control the outcome ofMaryland Redistricting Reform Commission's recommendations like they have controlled redistricting in Maryland for the last 100 years," said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.
"It's about time that the citizens of Maryland take control of this process and take it away from the politicians who have continued to look after their own interests and not the citizens of Maryland," he said.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear an argument from a Maryland man that the redistricting process in 2011 violated the First Amendment rights of Republicans who were marginalized into minority districts.