Some state lawmakers are hopeful the stars are aligned for Maryland to change the way it draws its political districts — a process that has resulted in some of the most convoluted maps in America.
Their hopes were bolstered recently when Republican Gov. Larry Hogan devoted part of his first State of the State address to a call for redistricting reform.
"We have some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. This is not a distinction that we should be proud of," Hogan said. "Gerrymandering is a form of political gamesmanship that stifles real political debate and deprives citizens of meaningful choices."
Hogan said he would create a commission to study the state's redistricting system, but some lawmakers are not waiting for its findings. They are proposing bills aimed at taking politics out of a process that has helped Democrats achieve lopsided majorities in the General Assembly and turn the congressional delegation from a 4-4 split in the 1990s to a 7-1 advantage over Republicans.
"The state has got some bad press about its congressional districts," said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College. He said Maryland's districts were being taught in college classes as "the poster child for gerrymandering."
Indeed, Maryland's 3rd Congressional District — which arcs around Baltimore from Pikesville to Annapolis before meandering to Montgomery County — makes most lists of the most gerrymandered in the county. Shortly after it was stitched together by Gov. Martin O'Malley and General Assembly leaders, the New Republic put it in first place.
The district was challenged in federal court, where a judge described it as a "broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state." The court found that it was indisputably a case of political gerrymandering, but ruled that it was not unconstitutional. The map was petitioned to referendum, where voters upheld it.
The maps are redrawn every 10 years, to reflect population changes revealed by the U.S. Census. Maryland's current system for redistricting starts with the governor, with the outcome controlled by the General Assembly.
Congressional redistricting is handled as a regular bill, with the governor proposing a map and the Assembly voting on it. For state legislative districts, the governor proposes boundaries and General Assembly members have 45 days to either reject the map and substitute their own or allow it to go into effect without a vote.
Convincing the Assembly to adopt a new system would be a challenge for several reasons — including the fact that the proposals would diminish the legislature's power. Nonetheless, there are at least six competing proposals before lawmakers to make substantive changes. Among them:
Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, has introduced constitutional amendments that would set up a 21-member commission to draw congressional and legislative maps. The panel would be chosen by a lottery from a pool of citizen applicants who had voted in every election for 12 years. A retired judge would be the nonvoting chairman. The maps could be overturned only by a two-thirds vote of both the House of Delegates and state Senate.
Del. Kathy Afzali, a Frederick County Republican, would transfer the governor's role in preparing the legislative district map to a commission made up of lawmakers of both parties. A separate panel would draw the congressional map.
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Montgomery County Democrat, would apply the stricter standards for geographical compactness that govern state legislative districts to drawing congressional lines — likely ruling out districts such as the 3rd, which she likened to "a wiggly worm." Gutierrez would require 141 single-member House of Delegates districts, replacing the current mix of three-member districts in some places and subdistricts in others. The Senate would continue to have 47 single-member districts.
Flanagan said his proposed lottery system is similar to one being used in California. He said he decided on a panel of citizens "because I trust the judgment of average voters," and compared it to the way a jury is chosen.
The veteran delegate, who returned to the House last month after a 12-year hiatus, said that with a new governor emphasizing the issue, it could get traction it hasn't had before.
"The time is right for public opinion to coalesce around reforming redistricting," he said. With the possibility that a re-elected Hogan could be drawing the maps after the 2020 Census, he said, Democrats might decide it's in their interests to come to the table.
Del. Christian J. Miele, a freshman Republican from Baltimore County, wants to create an independent commission made up of four legislators and five private citizens — a Democrat, a Republican and three independents. He would require compactness in drawing the lines, and also wants to go to single-member House districts in the General Assembly.
Miele said he wants to create a system in which "gamesmanship and partisanship" don't play a role. He said his aim is not to increase the number of Republicans in the legislature.
"That's the furthest thing from my mind. I'm very much a centrist," he said.
Leading Democrats are suspicious. Del. Kumar Barve of Montgomery County called the Republican bills "disingenuous." He pointed to maps drawn in Republican-controlled states that have helped the GOP solidify its hold on the House of Representatives and state capitols.
"This is a national problem," Barve said. He said he would consider a regional compact in which several states — Republican and Democratic — would simultaneously adopt reforms.
"The bottom line is we can either do this individually or do this separately, and I prefer to do it together," he said.
Eberly said Democrats would likely lose congressional and legislative seats in any redistricting reform but called Barve's position a "weaselly cop-out."
"Maryland is a progressive state," he said. "It just seems totally out of step with the values of the state that there's such a blatant manipulation of the process going on."
Legislation proposed by other lawmakers seeks to get around Democratic concerns that reform is akin to unilateral disarmament. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, and Sen. Wayne Norman, a Harford County Republican, want to link a decision by Maryland to adopt an independent commission form of congressional redistricting with a reciprocal move by a Republican-dominated state with a similar population.
"It's like those penguins: I'll take the plunge if you take the plunge," Pinsky said.
While Hogan made a pitch for reform, he also handed Democratic leaders a reason not to act this year.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, a Democrat, said the various proposals would have to wait until lawmakers see the findings of Hogan's commission.
"We'll put them in a study group until the governor comes up with his [recommendations]," Busch said.