When Maryland lawmakers gavel in for a special legislative session beginning Monday, a partisan battle over redrawing the state’s congressional maps will be front and center.
Democrats hold nearly all the cards, with large enough majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly to brush aside Republican complaints and override a threatened veto by Gov. Larry Hogan, who has vowed to reject any map he deems “unfair.”
As a result, the governor and his fellow Republicans in the legislature appear poised to turn to the bully pulpit and the courts to try to stave off a map that would likely continue to give Democrats outsize clout — seven of eight seats — in Maryland’s congressional delegation.
Democrats also plan to use the session to override several Hogan vetoes of bills they passed in the spring and to pick a replacement for retiring Treasurer Nancy Kopp. Del. Dereck Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat and chair of the House Economic Matters Committee, is expected to win the job after being endorsed by a bipartisan committee.
The seven seats in Congress held by Maryland Democrats would remain fairly safely in the party’s hands under the map proposed by the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission. In the case of the eighth, the Eastern Shore district held by Republican U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, it could become competitive in the right national political climate, as in 2018 when suburban voters across the country carried Democrats to control of the House.
The panel, composed of top General Assembly lawmakers, adopted the map on a party-line vote. It will be the starting point for lawmakers when they convene, though legislators are free to make changes.
States are required to redraw their election maps once every decade to account for population shifts recorded in the latest census.
Senate President Bill Ferguson and Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, both Democrats, said Nov. 24 in a statement that the proposal creates “more compact and easily followed” districts and makes at least half of them more competitive.
Democrats also highlighted that the map largely avoids shifting voters into new districts, a goal of the commission’s leaders. Del. Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat and the House majority leader, said “voters should have the choice of whether to keep or get rid of their current congressman.”
But top legislative Republicans question that premise, criticizing the state’s current map as badly gerrymandered and arguing it would’ve been fairer to start from scratch.
“If you have that as your baseline, you’re going to end up with a gerrymandered map again,” said state Sen. Bryan Simonaire of Anne Arundel County, who leads Senate Republicans. “Just cutting to the chase: this is a very political process. The [Democratic] supermajority has the votes to do what they want, so they don’t have to include us on this.”
Del. Jason Buckel of Allegany County, who leads House Republicans, acknowledged that the proposal included “incremental improvements” to some districts, while saying “it would be impossible to get worse” than the current map. The proposal’s goal was, in his view, “to ensure that certain sitting congresspeople get districts that they like or suit them.”
Buckel criticized in particular the boundaries shared by the 4th and 5th districts. The proposed 5th District, held by U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, reaches “like a hook” — in Buckel’s phrasing — through parts of Prince George’s County to take in College Park. Buckel also criticized U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes’ 3rd District, which would continue to sprawl from Montgomery County to the Pennsylvania line.
The map would give Democratic candidates a fighting chance of knocking off Harris by redrawing his district. A new 1st District would span most of the Eastern Shore and cross the Bay Bridge to take in Anne Arundel communities, including Arnold, Broadneck and Severna Park. It would then head north to parts of Glen Burnie and Millersville; stretch west through Crownsville; take in part of Parole, Heritage Harbour, Crofton and the Route 3 corridor; incorporate parts of Gambrills and Odenton, and go to the county line at Maryland City and Laurel.
Proposed congressional maps
There’s precedent for an across-the-bay leap for the district. While Anne Arundel has been split among four Western Shore-based districts for the past decade, sections of the county were included in an Eastern Shore congressional district in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Harris’ district, according to an analysis by the political news website FiveThirtyEight, would go from a roughly 26-point advantage for Republicans to an eight-point advantage and narrowly would’ve backed President Joe Biden over Donald Trump last year.
Democrats could have stacked the deck further against Harris, by adding the city of Annapolis or portions of Howard County to the district, but did not.
Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report and a close observer of redistricting, said Harris “would still be a favorite” to win reelection in the redrawn district in 2022 because midterm elections typically favor the party not in the White House. But Wasserman also told The Baltimore Sun that Harris would be vulnerable to a challenger in a better year for Democrats. In 2018, for instance, Democrats won House districts that favored Republicans more than the proposed new 1st District would.
The legislative commission’s proposed map would likely also give Republicans an outside shot at competing for two Democrat-held congressional seats — the 2nd District, held by U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, and the 6th District, represented by U.S. Rep. David Trone — although Democrats would still hold a solid upper hand in both.
Hogan called the legislature’s proposed map “deeply undemocratic,” “disgracefully gerrymandered” and “an abomination.” The proposal is “worse than the worst-in-the-nation designation of the current maps,” the governor said.
He contended that only the bipartisan commission he created drew up maps that could “restore fairness and competitiveness to Maryland elections.” While Hogan appears to be under no illusion that map has much of a chance in the legislature, he said Wednesday at a news conference that he’s pleased the General Assembly’s Democratic leaders have committed to holding a hearing and vote on it.
“In the past, a lot of our stuff has been stuck in a drawer and just never acted on,” Hogan said. “But they will introduce it and they will do, I think, a hearing on both bills: the good one that the citizens drew and the bad one that the politicians drew in the backroom.”
Hogan followed up those remarks with an email and social media blast Thursday, calling on supporters of his commission’s map to sign up by a Friday night deadline to testify during the special session. A hearing is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Monday, and lawmakers are expected to approve a final map within the week.
Hogan has frequently criticized the state’s heavily gerrymandered electoral maps, increasingly raising the issue over the past year and accusing Maryland Democrats of undermining fair elections by skewing the maps in their favor. While voters in Maryland strongly favor Democrats at the polls, Republicans consistently win about a third of ballots in statewide elections and yet hold just one congressional seat.
Hogan in the past has called for politicians to hand over to an independent commission the responsibility and power to redraw election maps, a suggestion lawmakers have rejected.
The commission he created this year — with members split between Republicans, Democrats and independents — drew the alternative map he’s submitted to lawmakers. It has neater lines, hewing largely to county boundaries, and would give Republicans a good shot at winning at least two, and perhaps three, congressional seats.
Hogan and Republican lawmakers have endorsed that map as fairer and — citing polling data and comments at the panel’s hearings — in line with the wishes of regular voters, who they contend have asked repeatedly for less gerrymandered districts.
Despite polls showing opposition to gerrymandering in principle, Maryland voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved the current map by a 2-1 margin after Republicans forced a referendum on the issue.
Many Maryland Democrats say they’d be open to a nationwide solution to gerrymandering but, in the meantime, see skewing maps in Maryland and a handful of other deep-blue states as a fair counter to favorable maps crafted by Republicans in states like Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.
Hogan backed a lawsuit seeking to overturn Maryland’s current map. The case, paired with a similar lawsuit over heavily gerrymandered Republican-drawn maps in North Carolina, wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. The court’s conservative majority ultimately rejected the legal challenge, ruling that partisan gerrymandering is a political matter that federal judges shouldn’t get involved in.
Mileah Kromer, a Maryland pollster and professor of political science at Goucher College, said most voters in the state take issue with partisan gerrymandering and that public opinion generally backs Hogan’s call for an independent commission to handle redistricting, at least in theory.
But Kromer said few voters appear to consider the issue a priority and many are swayed by partisan arguments that frame gerrymandering in Maryland as a necessary counterweight to GOP advantages elsewhere.
“A majority of Marylanders do support the idea of an independent commission and they recognize that gerrymandering is a problem. I think where it becomes complicated as a motivating factor for voters is they recognize where Maryland fits in a larger national political context,” Kromer said. “People recognize the fairness issue of [gerrymandering], but they’re not motivated in a way that would put pressure on the Democratic legislature.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.