O'Malley draws a better map

Compared to the congressional district maps Maryland lawmakers adopted this fall, Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposal for new legislative district lines looks downright rational. In most instances, the boundaries bear more than a passing resemblance to recognizable communities — Hagerstown, for example, gets its own delegate, Carroll County has its own senator, and the Lower Shore, Middle Shore and Upper Shore are divided in more or less the way you would expect. And there appears to be no obvious attempt here by Democrats to seek partisan advantage. In fact, a Democratic state senator in Baltimore County could be put at risk by the new lines.

Still, that doesn't mean the new maps won't be controversial and won't have strong ripple effects in the General Assembly. The lone Republican member of the redistricting advisory committee signed off on the plan — he had objected to the congressional map — but the state Republican Party has blasted the proposal as a Christmastime gift to the Democrats that leaves the GOP with "a lump of coal" in their stockings. Del. Anthony O'Donnell, the Republican leader in the House of Delegates, complains that the map dilutes Republican votes and forces some Republican legislators to run against each other. (It puts some Democratic delegates in the same position.)

It's not a coincidence that the legislative district map is cleaner in appearance than the congressional map. Other than having substantially equal population and following the Voting Rights Act, there are essentially no standards for drawing congressional districts. But the Maryland Constitution requires that legislative districts "consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions."

It was that last part, by and large, that led to the Court of Appeals' rejection of the maps Gov. Parris N. Glendening proposed in 2002. That plan was challenged by 14 individuals or groups, and the Court of Appeals took up the matter, as required by the state constitution. Although the petitions against the plan centered on a variety of perceived faults, the key issue the court decided was this: Can the state's "rational goals" — such as preserving experienced incumbents, maintaining the core of existing districts, promoting regionalism or creating greater opportunities for minority voters — trump the "due regard" provision in the constitution? The Glendening administration argued that it could, but the court said no. It focused much of its reasoning on the extent to which the governor's plan created districts that cross subdivision lines.

In general, it appears that the committee that drew this map took that court decision to heart; in fact, one fewer district crosses jurisdictional lines in this proposal than in the one the court drew after it threw out the 2002 maps. However, one of the multi-jurisdiction districts is bound to draw attention because it involves a crossing of the Baltimore City/Baltimore County line — one border the court pointedly respected in 2002. That decision revealed the court's discomfort in the degree to which the drafters of the 2002 plan ignored the line — an evident attempt to preserve as many city-based legislators as possible in the face of dwindling population numbers — but nowhere do the judges explicitly say that the city/county line must be sacrosanct. In fact, the court recognized the legality of some city/county districts in 1992.

Nonetheless, a challenge of this map may be inevitable, and the treatment of the city could still become an issue. Baltimore could support five fully self-contained districts and stay within the population variance tolerated by the courts. But the governor's proposal maintains six city-based senators by stretching the district now represented by Sen. Verna Jones-Rodwell into the county and by making all of the city-based districts as small population-wise as legal guidelines will allow. Courts typically allow districts to be as much as 5 percent over or under the ideal size, but the 2002 decision noted that such a rule is not absolute if "the drafters of the plan created the deviations solely to benefit one or more regions at the expense of another." Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's 27th District, which takes in parts of three counties for no discernible reason, could also be an issue.

As a whole, this map shows a great deal more respect for natural and jurisdictional boundaries than the Glendening map of 2002. Whether it will be enough for the Court of Appeals, though, is impossible to predict.

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