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Redistricting debate continues in Annapolis, Washington

2016-02-02

Hogan, Obama seek to take politics out of the process

Published  1:41 PM EST Feb 02, 2016

Current Maryland Congressional map

BALTIMORE —Gov. Larry Hogan and President Barack Obama are often on different sides on many political issues.

Last week, Hogan unveiled a bill to the General Assembly that he hopes will take politics out of the redistricting process. The bill calls for the creation of a nonpartisan panel to draw Maryland's legislative and congressional district lines.

The bill requires a change in the state Constitution to repeal the governor's office-led process. Members would draw legislative and congressional districts based on population, compactness and natural boundaries.

“An overwhelming majority of Marylanders favor an independent, nonpartisan panel for redistricting over the existing biased process,” Hogan said in a statement. “For too long, fair elections and a healthy, strong, and competitive two-party system have been nearly impossible in our state. This is about recognizing a problem and choosing to do the right thing to solve it.”

Hogan's bill was written based on the recommendations of the Redistricting Reform Commission, a bipartisan group Hogan established last year to examine the issue.

Members of the group, that included Democrats and Republicans, recommended the changes to ensure fairness in the redistricting process, which takes place every 10 years after the Census.

 "Redistricting is not a sexy issue, but one that impacts every voter in Maryland," said Christopher Summers, founder of the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a member of the Redistricting Reform Commission. "Voters should select their representatives, not the other way around."

Hogan's bill has the support of many groups that represent Democrats and Republicans, including Common Cause Maryland.

In September, Common Cause was a sponsor of the "Gerrymander Meander," a 225-mile relay in which participants traveled through Maryland's 3rd Congressional District.

The district, which is represented by Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Baltimore, is considered one of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, according to Common Cause.

Sarbanes' district includes parts of Baltimore City, along with sections of Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Montgomery counties. Critics have compared the shape of the district to "a broken-winged pterodactyl."

Maryland's 3rd Congressional District

The boundaries of Maryland's congressional districts have shifted tremendously in the last two sets of redistricting, which have stood up against legal challenges.

Before the 2002 elections, the state had four Republicans and four Democrats in its congressional delegation. By 2014, Rep. Andy Harris was the state's lone GOP in Congress. His district, the 1st District, includes parts of Baltimore, Harford and Carroll counties and all of the Eastern Shore.

Maryland's legislative redistricting process has also been questioned in recent years. In 2002, the Court of Appeals threw out a proposed map citing concerns over gerrymandering.

"We are thrilled by the governor's proposal," Common Cause executive director Jennifer Bevan Dangel said. "He has thought big. He has thought bold. And if this legislation moved forward, it would take the politics out of our redistricting process and put the voters back in charge."

Maryland Congressional map 1992-2000

Hogan's proposal comes as Obama is seeking similar reform across the country. The president expressed his concern over the issue in last month's State of the Union address.

"We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around," Obama said in the address. "(We need) changes in our political process, in not just who gets elected but how they get elected, that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people."

Sarbanes agrees that change is needed, but favors a federal response to the issue and has introduced legislation to that effect.

“I support creating national, independent and objective standards for drawing congressional districts," Sarbanes said. "That’s why I have worked with my colleagues in Congress to develop and introduce the Redistricting Reform Act of 2015, a comprehensive proposal that would establish independent redistricting commissions in every state.”

Uphill battle

Despite the push for change, Hogan's bill faces an uphill battle in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly. Senate President Mike Miller called the bill a non-starter.

Miller has also in the past cited a 2012 referendum vote in Maryland in which 64 percent of voters upheld the state's congressional map.

"He's playing politics with it, and it's probably good politics from his point of view," Miller said "But he knows it's not going to happen. I support the concept, but the concept I support is (that) Maryland can team up with Virginia so we can agree with the panel. Or Maryland can team up with Pennsylvania. But it has to be more than one state."

Such an approach has been proposed by Delegate Kirill Reznik, D-Montgomery County. Reznik has partnered with Rep. Brian Sims of Pennsylvania and Delegate Mark Sickles of Virginia, who are each submitting similar legislation in their respective states, to form a regional redistricting compact.

“I believe partisan redistricting has contributed to a toxic and gridlocked atmosphere in Washington, D.C.," Reznik said in a statement. "However, if we are to achieving legitimate redistricting reform, it must be truly independent and truly nonpartisan. It also must be done in such a way that no one party feels that it is being taken advantage of."

Redistricting equals power

St. Mary's College of Maryland political science professor Todd Eberly said redistricting is tough to reform in states where one party dominates, as in Maryland, where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 advantage over Republicans.

Eberly added that the referendum vote in 2012 is misleading because the question was worded so vaguely that most voters likely had no idea what they were voting for.

The referendum question said: "Establishes the boundaries for the state’s eight United States Congressional Districts based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution."

"There is little incentive to change the process when one party holds such a distinct advantage," Eberly said. "Those that control the redistricting process wield a lot of power. Democrats in Maryland don't deny this and just defend it by saying Republicans do the same thing in states where they are in control."

McDaniel College political science professor Herb Smith said taking the partisanship out of redistricting would likely help Republicans in Maryland.

"Maryland does not have a 7-to-1 advantage for Democrats, as reflected in the congressional delegation makeup," Smith said. "The Democrats are heavily concentrated in a few areas such as in Baltimore City, Prince George's County and Montgomery County.

"Republicans are spread out more evenly across the state. A nonpartisan approach to redistricting would shift the balance slightly for the GOP."

WBAL-TV 11 News I-Team reporter David Collins contributed to this story.

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