Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Thursday waded into the heated national debate over how to draw congressional boundaries — appointing a commission to explore ways to strip that power from elected leaders, even as the Democrats who control the state legislature vowed to resist.
Hogan (R) said he was creating an 11-member panel to recommend a new process for determining the lines of the state’s eight congressional seats. All but one are held by Democrats, thanks in part to boundaries drawn after the 2010 Census that diluted the power of some conservative-leaning counties by dividing them into multiple congressional districts.
Hogan acknowledged that the manipulation of boundaries — also known as gerrymandering — is not particular to either major political party. He encouraged Democrats and Republicans in other states and at the federal level to take steps to make redistricting more fair.
“Republicans are not always the victims, and Democrats are not always the afflictors,” he said. “There are states across the country where Republicans are just as guilty of the same type of gerrymandering that we have here in Maryland.”
[America’s most gerrymandered congressional districts]
Hogan said he would instruct the commission to draft an amendment to Maryland’s constitution that would give redistricting authority to a nonpartisan, independent panel. Such a proposal would have to be approved by the General Assembly — where Democrats hold a strong majority in both chambers — before it could appear on the 2016 ballot for a final decision by Maryland voters.
“Fair elections and a healthy and strong, competitive two-party system have been nearly impossible in our state,” Hogan said. “Gerrymandering is a form of political subterfuge that stifles real political debate and deprives citizens of meaningful choices.”
Leading Democrats said they were loath to change Maryland’s redistricting procedures unless other states did the same. Currently, both the governor and the state legislature play a role in drawing Maryland’s congressional districts.
“I think the vast majority of us would like to see something take place on the federal level, where all the states would be playing on a level playing field,” said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).
Noting that redrawn districts could jeopardize the seats of several of Maryland’s Democratic members of Congress, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said the legislature would be more likely to pass a resolution asking Congress to approve a national redistricting law.
[Is this how Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District is supposed to look?]
The U.S. Constitution gives states the power to determine the shape of their congressional districts.
In recent years, Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, New York and Washington have created citizen panels to draw voting lines. Four of those states established their panels through legislation, followed by ballot initiatives. The changes in Arizona and California took place through voter-initiated ballot measures.
State lawmakers challenged the Arizona measure, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 in June that voters can take redistricting authority away from state legislatures.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said changes in other states have not led to political upheaval.
“California’s balance of power actually didn’t change at all,” said Bevan-Dangel. “The only change is that the districts were fair and the process was open. There’s really no political reason to fear this.”
But the head of Maryland’s Democratic Party accused Hogan of “dabbling in national politics instead of focusing on issues that impact middle-class families.”
“Republicans drew the lines in eight of the nation’s 10 most gerrymandered districts,” said Pat Murray, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “If Governor Hogan is serious about redistricting reform, he should ask his allies at the [Republican National Committee], the [Republican Governors Association], and on Capitol Hill to develop a national solution.”
[Meet the members of the redistricting commission]
The governor named three Democrats, three Republicans and one independent to the commission, and asked the majority and minority leader of each legislative chamber to each appoint one more. Hogan’s appointees include a mix of policy experts and representatives from advocacy groups. Retired U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. and Walter Olson, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute, will co-chair the panel, which must produce recommendations by December for how to draw the boundaries of the state’s congressional districts and the 47 General Assembly districts.
Bevan-Dangel applauded Hogan for delivering on a reform effort he promised as a candidate. “We’re thrilled to see the governor follow through on his commitment,” Bevan-Dangel said. “It’s a significant step forward.”
In Virginia, Democrats say the Republican-controlled legislature has used the redistricting process to its advantage, drawing boundaries that ensure a lopsided number of GOP congressional representatives.
A legal challenge to Virginia's boundaries resulted in a Sept. 1 deadline for redrawing the districts, after a panel of judges found that the current map concentrates African American voters into one district and dilutes their influence in other districts. The General Assembly is set to convene later this month for a special session to create a new map.
At the same time, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is leading a nationwide push by the Democratic Governors Association to elect Democratic governors in states where they could influence the redrawing of districts after the 2020 Census.
The term gerrymandering comes from former Massachusetts governor and U.S. Vice President Elbridge Gerry, who created a congressional district that the Boston Gazette described in 1812 as salamander-shaped.