Maryland’s state lawmakers crowded back into the State House for the start of a special legislative session Monday with hopes of swiftly approving new boundaries for the state’s eight congressional districts.
By the end of the week, Democratic leaders plan to approve a new map that’s somewhat less convoluted than the state’s current congressional map — widely viewed as among the most gerrymandered in the nation — but will keep seven of the state’s eight seats safely in Democratic hands. Under the proposed map that’s already won the backing of top Democrats, the state’s lone congressional district currently held by a Republican, U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, would also become more competitive.
Republican lawmakers have lined up behind an alternate map drawn by a commission appointed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan that features more compact districts that also would improve the chances of Maryland Republicans.
Congressional analysts believe Republicans could win at least two — and perhaps as many as three — seats under the Hogan-backed maps. Hogan has billed his commission as a bipartisan alternative to the state’s current redistricting process, which is controlled by elected politicians.
Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly and are almost certain to remain in the driver’s seat throughout the redistricting process, despite the governor’s threats to oppose the legislature’s draft maps.
“We have a situation in our state where folks have made clear they don’t want gerrymandered maps, and the map proposal that we’re here to vote on this week is incredibly gerrymandered,” said Sen. Justin Ready, a Carroll County Republican and the minority whip in the Senate.
A House of Delegates committee took the first step Monday afternoon toward passing the legislative maps backed by Democrats, endorsing them on an 18-to-6 vote that broke neatly along party lines. The maps drawn by Hogan’s commission did not receive a vote.
States are required to revise their electoral maps every decade to reflect population shifts since the last census and ensure that voters in each state have a roughly equal say in electing politicians to the U.S. House of Representatives. Each Maryland congressional district should have about 773,000 people after redistricting.
In Maryland, no congressional district saw a bigger population shift than the Baltimore City-based 7th District, currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume, which shrunk by more than 65,000 people between 2010 and 2020.
Del. Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County, a top-ranking Democrat in the House, called the Democrat-backed map an improvement on the state’s current congressional districts, which were drawn in 2011. The state’s congressional districts would be “more compact and contiguous,” Luedtke told fellow lawmakers Monday, and six of the state’s eight districts would become at least somewhat more politically competitive.
Luedtke also defended one of the most dramatic proposed changes, redrawing the Eastern Shore-based 1st District to jump across the Bay Bridge to include about 229,000 Anne Arundel County residents — adding more Democratic-leaning voters to the district currently represented by Harris — while moving parts of Harford County, northern Baltimore County and Carroll County to other congressional districts.
That would whittle down the once-insurmountable Republican advantage in the district but still would give Harris a strong chance to win a sixth term next fall, according to Cook Political Report and other redistricting analysts.
“The future of Anne Arundel County and the (Eastern) Shore are linked together by the Bay Bridge — they have been for decades — and they are under this map,” Luedtke said. “No matter your politics, the Shore was not well served by sharing a congressional district halfway across the northern border of Maryland with Carroll and Baltimore counties for the last 10 years.”
But Republicans sharply criticized Democratic lawmakers for using the current maps, which Republicans believe are gerrymandered, as a starting point for the new maps. Hogan, who backed a previous unsuccessful legal challenge to the state’s current congressional maps that wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court, has threatened a lawsuit to block the proposed maps if lawmakers end up overriding his likely veto.
Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the goal of the new congressional map will be to have fair boundaries that reflect demographic shifts and keep as many voters as possible in their current district. It also reduces how much of Baltimore County and Anne Arundel County are split among districts while making the districts more competitive, Ferguson said.
“There are pushes and pulls,” in drawing districts, Ferguson said in an interview.
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Ferguson said he’s “keenly aware” of the possibility of a legal challenge to the maps, but he said he’s “very confident” the maps would pass legal muster.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, the Republican minority leader in the Senate, said his party is considering their strategy for opposing the Democrat-preferred maps during the special session. They may offer an amendment that would substitute the governor’s map for the Democratic-preferred map, Simonaire said, forcing a vote to put lawmakers on the record.
In the end, though, Simonaire expects Democrats to “ram through their gerrymandered map.”
Dozens of Maryland voters signed up to testify about the proposed maps during a three-hour virtual hearing Monday afternoon, with many of those speaking in favor of the Hogan-backed commission’s proposal and to criticize Maryland Democrats for gerrymandering district to give their party an electoral advantage.
“We need to do the right thing and not be known as one of the worst states for gerrymandering,” said Josephine Salazar, who said she has lived in Maryland since 1986. “Let’s be a positive example for the entire nation.”
The government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, whose affiliates have fought against partisan gerrymandering in other states, criticized the process Maryland lawmakers used to draft the maps but didn’t take an official position on any of the competing proposals. Joanne Antoine, the group’s executive director, said that’s because “the outcome really is preordained.”
“People are disengaged because they know their feedback will receive very little consideration,” she told lawmakers on Monday.