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Without a national solution, Maryland Democrats squeezed into uncomfortable spot on redistricting

Bill Ferguson wore a detached expression and spoke in a monotone.

One after another, General Assembly Republicans pressed the state Senate president to specify which Democratic lawmakers or staff drafted the latest map of Maryland’s congressional district lines and what their priorities were.

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Ferguson’s demeanor suggested he wanted to be anywhere but the livestreamed hearing.

“I answered the question,” he replied to one delegate who was insistently seeking more details about how the map was redrawn after a judge rejected an initial version as extremely partisan. “Thank you for that perspective,” he said robotically to another GOP critic.

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Six days later, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan signed the map into law — over the objections of many in his party — ending the arduous, politically perilous and often downright unpleasant task of finalizing boundary lines for the state’s eight congressional districts.

It was a process, analysts say, that put Maryland Democrats on the spot, squeezing them uncomfortably between the competing objectives of maintaining their party’s control of the U.S. House and embracing transparency and government reform.

And redistricting is not over yet. The Maryland Court of Appeals is still considering a Republican challenge to the Democratic-drawn map of 47 districts in the state House of Delegates and state Senate.

“There’s a lot that’s just not being said,” said Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonpartisan group that focuses on government accountability. “When we talk about politics getting ugly, I think redistricting is at the center of all of it.”

Democrats may want to be the party of reform, but they seem unwilling to support a less partisan redistricting system for fear of jeopardizing their U.S. House or state legislative seats, said Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore’s College of Public Affairs.

“The concern is if you cede any ground to the other party, you end up being the loser,” Hartley said.

Gov. Larry Hogan talks to reporters Monday in Annapolis after signing a measure to enact a new map for the state’s eight U.S. House seats.

Redistricting follows the census every 10 years to ensure that congressional, state and local districts maintain relatively equal populations. But it’s about much more than that.

Analysts say parties controlling statehouses — such as Democrats in Maryland and New York, and Republicans in Pennsylvania and North Carolina — use redistricting as a political scalpel, carving up maps to assign their party’s voters to districts where they can best influence elections. Courts in each of the four states rejected maps this year that judges said were unfair to the rival party.

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While gerrymandering dates back centuries, national Republican strategist Karl Rove “realized that if you can control the statehouses, you control the maps,” said U.S. Rep. David Trone, whose 6th District in Western Maryland and Maryland’s Washington, D.C., suburbs has been significantly altered in recent redistricting rounds.

“His famous quote was, ‘He who controls redistricting can control Congress.’ The Republicans are smarter than we are,” said Trone, a Democrat.

Neither party talks much about the big picture: using redistricting to try to secure a U.S. House majority.

“With legislation, the sausage-making isn’t pretty,” Hartley said. “In this case, the thirst for power isn’t pretty.”

U.S. House control hangs in the balance in November’s midterm elections. Democrats hold a slim, 221-209 majority with five vacancies.

Across the nation, Republicans command more than 60% of state legislatures, potentially giving them the upper hand in redrawing congressional district boundaries.

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Watchdog groups such as Common Cause often align with Democrats, at least nationally, on anti-gerrymandering efforts. For example, the organization supported a voting rights bill sponsored by Democratic U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland that would have curbed legislatures from creating sharply partisan U.S. House districts. The U.S. House passed the bill in 2021, but it couldn’t clear the U.S. Senate.

But on the state level, Common Cause Maryland and other government reform groups have split with Democrats, urging the state to shift to a nonpartisan and more transparent redistricting plan, such as one used in California. California’s maps are drawn by a citizens’ commission. The panel uses a lottery-style procedure to select its Democratic, Republican and independent members.

Ferguson was unavailable to respond to Baltimore Sun questions about redistricting as the legislative session wound down to its final day Monday, a spokesman said.

The Senate president would be open to a nonpartisan redistricting approach in Maryland if there was an agreement with Republican states to do the same, the spokesperson said.

Trone, too, said Republicans would need to adopt nonpartisan procedures before Democrats would agree to participate in a national fix that he supports.

The second-term representative said he despises gerrymandering because it creates noncompetitive districts in which House members barely need to listen to the opposite party’s voters to win reelection. But he said his party can’t act alone.

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“The House of Representatives hangs by a thread for us Democrats,” Trone said. “And it’s a pretty tough ask for one party to unilaterally stop.”

Trone acknowledges he faces a tougher reelection challenge under the recently approved map. His new district subtracts a portion of Democrat-dominated Montgomery County, while adding voters in Frederick County, where voter registration is more evenly split between the parties.

A half-dozen Republicans have filed for the July 19 primary seeking to oppose Trone, the co-founder of the Total Wine & More chain of alcohol stores.

Gerrymandering often involves packing large numbers of the opposite party’s voters — or members of a racial or ethnic group — into a limited number of districts, leaving that party or group with too few voters to compete elsewhere.

In rejecting the Democrats’ initial map and ordering a new one, Lynne A. Battaglia — a retired judge assigned to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court case — said she agreed with expert witness testimony that Republican voters and candidates would have been “substantially adversely impacted.”

The redrawn map was called “a huge step in the right direction” by Hogan.

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But a half-dozen Republican lawmakers who joined the remote hearing that Ferguson oversaw March 29 seemed dissatisfied.

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“Did you, Senator Ferguson, draw the map? I mean, somebody should be on the Zoom call who actually drew the map,” said Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore and Harford counties.

“Thank you for that perspective,” Ferguson flatly replied.

“So you’re saying, ‘No, there isn’t anyone?’” Szeliga continued.

And on it went.

Ferguson said the map was drafted by staff from the state Department of Legislative Services — which provides research and analysis to the General Assembly — in consultation with lawyers from Maryland’s attorney general’s office to ensure the districts would pass judicial muster. He didn’t offer further specifics. He said the drafting was done quickly to meet the order by Battaglia, who gave lawmakers five days to complete it.

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Common Cause’s Antoine said redistricting presents a bad look for the state.

“Voters have no reason to trust the redistricting process. The process is riddled with problems,” she said. “We continue to punt to this idea of a national solution. Unfortunately, it has not come.”


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