Everyone in Md. says they want redistricting reform. Here’s why

May 27, 2017

By Josh Hicks

Maryland’s elected leaders seem unlikely to negotiate a deal this year to end partisan gerrymandering, despite overwhelming public support for redistricting reform, pressure from citizen groups to reach a compromise, and a federal lawsuit that could force the state to overhaul its voting maps for upcoming elections.More than two weeks after Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed plans to pursue a regional redistricting compact and insisted that Maryland should act alone, the state’s top Republican and Democratic officials remain sharply divided on the issue and have made no efforts to merge their proposals.“Pulling these parties together could be the trickiest piece,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, which is urging the two sides to meet this summer and hammer out an agreement before next year’s legislative session.A February Goucher College poll showed that 73 percent of Marylanders would prefer that an independent commission determine the state’s voting districts, with overwhelming support for the concept across party lines. Only 20 percent said they want elected officials to continue forming the districts, which have been called among the most convoluted in the nation.

For the past two years, Hogan has proposed putting a nonpartisan panel in charge of redistricting for congressional and legislative districts. His bills have died without a vote in the state legislature, where Democrats hold strong majorities in both chambers.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), center, seated between Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D), left, and House Speaker Michael Busch (D). (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Democrats say they don’t want to change the map-drawing process for Maryland, where their party has a more than 2-to-1 voter-registration advantage over the GOP, while Republican-controlled states continue gerrymandering.In Virginia, where Republicans hold majorities in both legislative chambers, bills aimed at ensuring nonpartisan redistricting failed for similar reasons, with GOP lawmakers saying they don’t want their state to disarm unilaterally.Maryland’s legislature this year approved a proposal to create an independent commission to draw the voting maps, but only for congressional districts, and only if five other states agree to the same plan. Lawmakers from both parties would appoint members of the panel.Hogan vetoed the measure, which he called a “phony bill masquerading as redistricting reform” and vowed to continue fighting for his own proposal.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) responded with a joint statement saying the governor “prefers his plan to simply elect more Republicans to Congress.”

Common Cause and the Maryland League of Women Voters applauded Hogan’s veto, saying the Democrats’ bill set an “impossibly high bar” with its requirement for five other states to join a redistricting compact. The advocacy groups also criticized the measure for not addressing legislative districts.

“It was a feel-good bill that made them feel like they did something,” said Nancy Soreng, co-president of the Maryland League of Women Voters. “It just gave Maryland an excuse to sit back and do nothing.”

Democrats could enact their bill next year by overriding the governor’s veto, and they had enough votes to do so when they passed the bill this year. But Busch and Miller have not said publicly what they want their powerful Annapolis caucuses to do next.

Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery), who proposed the House version of the multistate plan, said he is open to working on a compromise measure, but he doesn’t think the governor is willing to budge.

“He wants his bill and no other plan,” Reznick said. “He has to signal that he’s open to some kind of multistate solution before we move forward.”

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said the governor sees little room for compromise on the matter and has no plans for reaching out to Democrats.

“We’re always willing to talk to people and find ways to make things work, but this is an issue of right versus wrong, and there’s not a lot of middle ground,” he said.

The federal judiciary might force state officials into action, depending upon the outcomes of three gerrymandering lawsuits, including one in Maryland.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that racial gerrymandering violates the Voting Rights Act. But it has never adopted a standard for striking down partisan ma­nipu­la­tion, despite saying the practice could be unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs attorneys are now testing a new legal approach, arguing that partisan gerrymandering in Maryland, North Carolina and Wisconsin violates the First Amendment by preventing people of a particular political persuasion from electing their preferred representative.

In Maryland, plaintiffs lawyers are asking a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt to block the state from enforcing its congressional map. The attorneys are hoping for a ruling in their favor this fall, which could force the legislature to draw a new map before the June, 2018 primary.

“It may be the courts that finally put some fairness into the process,” Soreng said.

Bevan-Dangel, of Common Cause, sees room for Hogan and Democratic leaders to compromise. She said, for example, that they could agree to legislation putting an independent commission in charge of redistricting while only encouraging other states to follow suit, rather than making the change contingent upon a regional compact.

Or, Maryland officials could stagger implementation of the plan so that the change affects only congressional maps for the next round of redistricting, Bevan-Dangel said, allowing lawmakers to work out any kinks in the system before using it to redraw legislative maps down the line.

Additionally, she said they could negotiate how to form the independent commission, relying on models in other states for ideas.

In California, state auditors select dozens of applicants from a pool, then use a lottery to narrow the field to eight commissioners, who then pick six more people for a panel of five Democrats, five Republicans and four unaffiliated members.

In Arizona, the state’s Commission on Appellate Court Appointments nominates 25 applicants, and party leaders in both legislative chambers appoint two members apiece from that group. The appointees then pick a fifth member.

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters plan to spend the summer pressing Maryland’s top officials to work on a redistricting-reform agreement and encouraging partner organizations in other states to do the same.

They will also ask the Hogan administration’s redistricting-reform task force to hold additional public meetings in urban areas to address concerns that the work group, which was formed in 2015, didn’t focus enough on such communities.

The groups’ other plans include public-outreach efforts. In the past, they organized the Gerrymander Meander, a relay tracing the state’s contorted 3rd Congressional District; and mock birthday celebrations for gerrymandering’s namesake, former Massachusetts governor and U.S. Vice President Elbridge Gerry.

Bevan-Dangel said her group has discussed bringing former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to Maryland this year to promote his state’s redistricting model.

She said Democratic and Republican leaders in the state should work toward an agreement before the 2018 election because “either party could end up suffering if they’re seen to blame for redistricting reform not happening when it could have.”

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