State commission attacks redistricting reform

As the state's redistricting reform commission held its first meeting at Towson University on Tuesday, co-chairman Alexander Williams Jr. noted that the group was sitting in Maryland's 3rd Congressional District.

Yet other parts of the Towson campus, Williams said, are in the 2nd Congressional District.


That fact illustrates the challenge facing Williams and other members of the commission: How to create a process for drawing political maps to avoid tangled and confused districts that critics say are among the most gerrymandered in the nation.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan created the commission last month, saying he wants a constitutional amendment to put before voters in 2016 that could change how the state's congressional and General Assembly districts are drawn. Tuesday's meeting was the first of five scheduled around the state, and the commission's proposal is due by Nov. 3.


Maria Pycha, a member of Baltimore County's Republican Central Committee, said she has campaigned with many candidates who are "constantly looking at a map" to figure out which neighborhoods are in their districts.

Voters are equally confused, she said. "They get very aggravated with the system," she said.

Several elected officials, political activists and a handful of citizens told commission members the system needs reform. Most said Maryland needs some form of independent commission to draw boundaries for the political districts.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, advocated for a system similar to one used in California, where a citizen commission holds more than 100 public meetings across the state before drawing new maps.

Other states have commissions made up of citizens and politicians; Iowa has districts drawn by the state's nonpartisan legislative services office.

No matter what process is proposed, she said, "transparency and public participation are so critical."

It's unclear, however, whether the commission's eventual proposal will go anywhere. Democratic leaders who control the General Assembly have said the idea is a non-starter in Annapolis. To put a constitutional amendment on the ballot, members of both chambers of the legislature would have to pass a bill approving it with three-fifths majorities.

Maryland's congressional districts have been mocked for their odd shapes, though the most recent map has been upheld three times in court challenges. The districts also were upheld by voters by a 64 percent vote during a referendum in the 2012 election.

Another legal challenge is pending. The Supreme Court is expected to hear a challenge this fall to Maryland's redistricting, brought by a Bethesda man who argues the map violates Republicans' First Amendment rights by placing them in districts where they are in the minority.

The state's 3rd Congressional District — currently represented by John Sarbanes, a Democrat — is often ridiculed for snaking in an erratic pattern through parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties.

A federal judge once called it "reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state." Another judge called it a "Rorschach-like eyesore."

While focus has been on Maryland's congressional districts, districts for state delegates and state senators also have been criticized, with critics saying Democrats have drawn the districts to preserve their majorities in both chambers.


State Sen. James Brochin, a Democrat, attended Tuesday's meeting with maps showing his district before and after the last round of redistricting. The "before" map showed the district centered around Towson. The "after" map showed the district stretching from the Baltimore City line to the Pennsylvania line through rural, conservative-leaning neighborhoods — a change he alleged was made by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley to squeeze him out of office for votes that strayed from the party line. Brochin ended up winning the last election anyway.

"This wasn't about what was good for the people," Brochin said. "It was done in strict retaliation."

Others were critical that some of the state's 47 legislative districts have three delegates each, but others are carved up into subdistricts with one or two delegates each. Some advocated having all three-member districts, while others advocated all single-member districts.


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