Foes of congressional map meet target

A Republican-led group trying to repeal Maryland's new congressional map has gathered enough valid signatures to trigger a referendum, the State Board of Elections said Wednesday.

The map — which one federal judge called a "blatant political gerrymander" — was the result of the once-a-decade redistricting that must take into account population changes found by the census. But Democrats have acknowledged it was designed to give their party a strong chance of picking up a seventh seat in Maryland's eight-member delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The finding that the map's critics have secured more than the required 56,000 signatures likely assures the measure will be on November's ballot. That would make it one of three laws passed by the General Assembly's majority Democrats to go before voters this fall — the most challenges to the ruling party's legislative agenda in half a century. All three are high-profile efforts backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

"People want checks and balances," said Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex X. Mooney. "The Democrats have total control, and they do what they want."

Other laws headed for the ballot include this year's legislation to legalize same-sex marriage and a measure passed last year to allow some illegal immigrants to pay lower in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities. Before last year, two decades had passed since any group successfully petitioned a law to the ballot.

O'Malley said Wednesday he will defend the congressional map, along with the other two laws. "The map is balanced and meets all constitutional requirements — that's what the courts have found," he said.

Should voters overturn the map, the governor would have to send a new map to the legislature in 2013 — but he said voters should not expect a drastically different outcome. "There could be some marginal changes," O'Malley said in an interview.

"The Republican Party in Maryland, incapable of electing statewide candidates or offering a platform for moving our state forward, has seized upon Maryland's pretty relaxed and open requirements for petitioning nonbudget matters to referendum," O'Malley said.

He added that "some" people believe the state's threshold for petitioning a law to referendum is too low, but said he has not focused on changing it.

Mooney, the Republican chairman, said having a referendum on the map was "extremely important" because it shows that his party can challenge legislation that doesn't typically capture public attention.

State law sets the number of signatures required to trigger a referendum at 3 percent of the turnout from the previous gubernatorial election. This cycle, the magic number is 55,736.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the State Board of Elections had certified 56,378 of the signatures submitted to challenge the new map. That is 642 more than the minimum needed to trigger a referendum, and the board still had about 2,800 left to analyze. Officials said they expect to finish by the end of the week.

The state Democratic Party says it is considering a court challenge to the petition effort. Officials said they may ask a judge to determine whether signatures can be collected via the Internet, an innovation pioneered last year by Del. Neil Parrott, the Western Maryland Republican who led the campaign to put the map before voters.

Any lawsuits would have to be resolved quickly because ballot language must be settled by Aug. 20.

Parrott says he believes his petition will be upheld, both in the courts and at the ballot box in November.

"As more and more voters see the map and understand they can vote on it, they are going to say, 'Governor O'Malley, you've given us a lemon of a map. You need to take it back and give us a new one,'" Parrott said.

He said plans to form a coalition of Republicans, African-Americans and good-government groups — all of whom opposed the map when it was passed by the General Assembly in an October special session.

Radamase Cabrera, a spokesman for the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee, said the group plans to mobilize black communities against the map. The Prince George's County-based group is named after a civil rights activist. The organization, which argues Maryland should have a third district in which African-Americans are a majority, helped mount a failed court challenge to the map last year.

Now, Cabrera says, the group will try to reach black Democrats who are coming out to support President Barack Obama in the fall and seek their votes against the map. "Why should Baltimore City have to be split up in three districts to protect white incumbents?" Cabrera said. "That clearly dilutes black voter strength."

Rep. Donna Edwards, an African-American lawmaker from Prince George's, called the map "extremely problematic from a voting-rights standpoint" in October. A spokesman for her office declined to comment Wednesday.

The map also upset many Republicans, in part because the Western Maryland district long represented by GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett was redrawn to include a large chunk of traditionally liberal Montgomery County. It is now considered one of the few House districts in the country that could go from red to blue this fall. O'Malley has won praise from national Democratic leaders for providing that opportunity.

Those who canvassed for signatures against the map said they found support simply by showing it to people — especially with the tangle of boundaries in the central part of the state.

The 3rd District, represented by Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, is so misshapen it was described by a federal judge as "reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."

There is precedent for Maryland voters to overturn a congressional map: In 1961, a group petitioned to referendum a map that increased the state's congressional delegation from seven members to eight. That year, four state laws were petitioned to referendum.

Before the current cluster of issues, the last law to be petitioned was Maryland's abortion rights statute. Voters in 1992 overwhelmingly upheld the law.