Gerrymandering opponents highlight convoluted districts

Though the drive from Mount Washington in Baltimore to Hunt Valley in Baltimore County spanned only 13 miles, the travelers passed through four different congressional districts.

Members of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other groups stopped at four different restaurants along the way Sunday afternoon to highlight what they characterized as Maryland’s extreme gerrymandering, in which boundaries of districts are manipulated to favor a specific incumbent or political party.

Opponents of the practice said they felt the momentum was with them to start redrawing district lines to be more compact and fair. In Maryland, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one. But with the map drawn in 2011 by Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and legislative leaders, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state’s House delegation by seven to one.

At the event Sunday, Republican Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said the governor’s office will again back a bill next year to establish a bipartisan commission to redraw congressional districts.

Similar measures in the past have failed. Democrats have pointed out that Republicans have drawn gerrymandered districts in states they control, and say ceding majority control of the process in Maryland would amount to unilateral disarmament.

Democratic state lawmakers approved legislation this year to reform the redistricting process in Maryland if five other states did the same. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, called the measure “phony” and vetoed it.

Rutherford said he hopes Democratic leaders in Annapolis will support the bipartisan commission.

“A lot of the challenges that we have in Washington are due to the fact that we gerrymander and a lot of other states do the same thing, so we want to move away from that,” Rutherford said. “We think it’s better for everyone. It’s more diversity of opinions and ideas. I think you move people back to the center, and the debate back to the center when you do this.”

The Supreme Court agreed last month to hear a challenge to partisan gerrymandering in a case that could have implications for Maryland. A separate Maryland case is pending before a federal court.

Maryland is considered one of the more blatantly gerrymandered states. A federal judge wrote that the 3rd District, held by Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, was “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

O'Malley acknowledged this year that the map drawn after the 2010 census was gerrymandered, and has come out in favor of national redistricting reform. The next redistricting will take place after the 2020 census.

A recent Goucher College poll found that 73 percent of Marylanders across party lines supported establishing an independent commission to redraw districts.

The Sunday event, dubbed the “Gerrymander Meander,” drew about 50 people, some of whom took vans from restaurant to restaurant. They signed petitions calling for redistricting reform, snacked on appetizers and played gerrymandering-themed trivia.

It was the second Gerrymander Meander. In 2014, reform supporters took a three-day, 225-mile journey around the 3rd District via running, biking, kayaking and a motorboat.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the attendees were “very frustrated” with how congressional district lines were drawn.

“You think about how a congressional district could be stacked like sandwich bread, across Baltimore County, it really helps highlight how bad our redistricting process is,” she said. “When you look at the polarization in Congress, when you look at the apathy and the frustration people have with their government, redistricting feeds into both of those problems, and if we want to reclaim our democracy, it has to start by reclaiming our district lines.”

Theresa Freligh of Jarrettsville, who drove one of the vans for the event, lives in the First District, held by Republican Rep. Andy Harris.

The district stretches from her hometown in Harford County all the way to Ocean City. She’s never been there, she said, and feels little in common with it.

“What do the people over there have to do with people in Jarrettsville?” asked Freligh, 67. “We’re all farming in Jarrettsville and schoolteachers who don’t make enough money and those kind of concerns.

“Ocean City, I’m sure they have their own concerns. But we have one guy to represent us, and it’s not fair.”

cwells@baltsun.com

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