The top Democratic leaders in the Maryland General Assembly unveiled a new seven-member commission to study redistricting as politicians gear up for the upcoming once-a-decade redrawing of the state’s election maps.
The Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission will hold a dozen public hearings across the state and weigh in with recommendations as lawmakers decide how to redraw the election lines for state legislative and congressional districts. Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore City Democrat, and Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Baltimore County Democrat, tapped Karl Aro, the former longtime head of the state’s Department of Legislative Services, to lead the panel.
Aro, who retired in 2015 after more than three decades at the nonpartisan agency, worked extensively on the last three redistricting efforts in Maryland in 1990, 2000 and 2010.
Besides Aro, top state lawmakers — four Democrats and two Republicans — will make up the rest of the newly launched redistricting commission. Ferguson and Jones will each hold a seat, along with two fellow Democrats: Senate President Pro Tempore Melony Griffith of Prince George’s County and House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke of Montgomery County. The top Republicans from each chamber, Senate Minority Leader Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel County and House Minority Leader Jason Buckel of Allegany County, will also sit on the commission.
The commission plans to hold 10 in-person town hall-style meetings in different parts of the state beginning in August as well as two virtual statewide meetings. All the meetings will be broadcast live online, according to a press release announcing the commission.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan launched his own redistricting commission in January, dubbed the Citizens Redistricting Commission, which the governor has billed as a nonpartisan and independent group. Hogan’s commission held its fifth of eight scheduled hearings — a virtual discussion focused on Harford, Carroll and Cecil counties — on Wednesday night.
Democrats in the State House hold most of the power to redraw the state’s political maps following the 2020 Census. Maryland law allows the governor to submit the first drafts of the proposed maps — a task Hogan said he’ll leave to the commission he created in January — but lawmakers are free to tweak those maps or replace them wholesale. Democrats hold veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, giving them more than enough votes to override Hogan’s proposals if Democratic lawmakers remain largely united around their own plan.
The legislative redistricting commission “serves as the General Assembly’s vehicle to hear from Marylanders across the State in a bipartisan and transparent manner before proposing maps,” Ferguson said in a statement. “We are confident that Marylanders will participate in this democratic process robustly to make their voices heard in the coming months.”
The panel’s “goal is to ensure that Maryland’s representation reflects its citizens,” said Jones. “The General Assembly will pass fair maps based on the robust public engagement and feedback of this commission.”
The dueling commissions are another sign that the Republican governor and the Democrat-led legislature are on a political collision course over redistricting, a sharp contrast from a decade ago, when then-Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley largely deferred to his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly to redraw the state’s maps and participated in the legislature’s process. The current Maryland congressional districts produced from that process in 2010 have been widely cited as some of the most heavily gerrymandered in the nation, giving Democrats an outsized advantage.
Democrats currently hold of seven of the state’s eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, even though Republicans make up roughly a third of voters statewide.
National politics could raise the stakes in redistricting as well, with Democrats holding only a narrow majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Where Republicans hold the political advantage in state capitals they have used that power over the past decade to generally tilt congressional elections in their party’s favor, something that many Democrats have sharply and repeatedly denounced as undemocratic and unfair — even as Democrats have turned to gerrymandering in places like Maryland where they control the process.
A closely divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld Maryland’s election maps in a 2019 decision that ruled that federal courts should not consider allegations of partisan gerrymandering even if skewed maps produced seemingly unfair results. The decision also addressed a legal challenge to North Carolina’s heavily gerrymandered electoral maps, which give Republicans an outsized partisan advantage there.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Maryland voters backed the Democrat-drawn electoral maps by a 2-to-1 margin in a 2012 statewide ballot question.
Electoral districts for state senators and delegates in Maryland are generally seen as far less subject to partisan gerrymandering than the congressional districts, largely because the Maryland constitution places more requirements — such as discouraging splitting up counties or towns — on those electoral lines.
Hogan’s commission doesn’t have a formal role in the process under Maryland law. But Hogan has indicated he’ll defer to their recommendations, which seem likely to produce a congressional map that would give Maryland Republicans a stronger chance at competing for congressional seats.
Several Hogan allies — Republican strategist and Hogan advisor Doug Mayer, former Republican Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and former Democratic state Sen. Jim Brochin of Baltimore County — launched an anti-gerrymandering lobbying group last week aimed at pressuring lawmakers to go along with Hogan’s proposals.
Kittleman and Brochin criticized the makeup of the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission in a joint statement Thursday and touted the governor’s commission as “a true non-partisan organization fighting for voting rights.”
“This is real simple — politicians shouldn’t be drawing their own districts and picking their own voters,” said Brochin and Kittleman, “and unfortunately this new commission does exactly that.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.
This article has been updated to correct the number of public meetings held by the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission. The commission has held five of eight scheduled meetings.