No one has called Maryland's 3rd Congressional District pretty.
The irregular shape of the district currently represented by Rep. John Sarbanes has been compared to a Rorschach test and a crime scene blood spatter spread across Central Maryland. The New Republic called it "America's Most Gerrymandered Congressional District"; Roll Call said its boundaries frame a "Pinwheel of Death."
And, memorably, the federal judge who ruled the map constitutional nonetheless declared it "reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."
Activists hoping to draw still more attention to the lines drawn by Democrats in Annapolis after the 2010 census embarked Friday on a three-day, 225-mile journey around the district — a trek that requires bikes, running shoes, two kayak trips and a motorboat.
"If you really wanted to run the perimeter, you could not do it," said Tom DeKornfeld. He spent a year designing the course for this weekend's "Gerrymander Meander" race.
DeKornfeld wore a T-shirt reading, "Voters should choose their elected officials; elected officials should not choose their voters."
While activists conceded that they're stuck with the odd-shaped district for now, they hope this weekend's event will inspire politicians to charge a nonpartisan board with redrawing the maps in 2020.
"If we wait until after the census, it will be too late, and we'll have another bad process and another bad map," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. The good-government group helped organize the race with the state's League of Women Voters and the Annapolis chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.
The redistricting that followed 2010 census was controversial from the start.
The map drawn by the state's majority Democrats helped the party's incumbents all win re-election in 2012 and enabled Democratic challenger John Delaney to defeat longtime Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, giving Democrats seven of the state's eight House seats.
But when Republicans appealed the map to the federal courts, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer upheld it, and when they won enough signatures to schedule a referendum, voters approved it.
"The current districts were passed into law, then reaffirmed by the courts and overwhelmingly upheld by nearly two-thirds of Maryland voters," said Bob Fenity, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's spokeswoman, Nina Smith, defended the map Friday and what she said it delivered to Maryland residents.
"Maryland has one of the strongest, most effective congressional delegations in the nation," she said. "The map we submitted in 2012 reflects significant changes in population and demographics in Maryland since the 2000 census and the extensive comments, hearings, and testimony collected in 2011."
But the two men vying to replace O'Malley say they would do things differently.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's campaign manager, Justin Schall, said the Democratic gubernatorial nominee supports an independent redistricting commission.
But Schall described redistricting as "a national challenge that requires a comprehensive 50-state solution." He said Brown would support congressional action to revise redistricting standards across the country.
A spokesman for Republican nominee Larry Hogan said Hogan "believes strongly that there should be a nonpolitical process." Spokesman Adam Dubitsky said Hogan has vowed to create a new commission during his first term.
The activists say the prospect of a new governor and turnover in the legislature is cause for hope.
At least a third of the House of Delegates will be freshman members next year. Bevan-Dangel said the weekend's race gives activists a chance to sway the opinions of new members before they even arrive in office.
"We'll have a sea change in Annapolis," she said. "There's going to be a lot of new faces. It's a chance to look at redistricting with fresh eyes."