Activists Jennifer Geiser, left, and Justin Peake run along Old Columbia Road in Laurel as part of the their anti-gerrymandering protests. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

The anti-gerrymandering activists spent a year plotting their route through Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, which meanders through narrow stretches of four counties and was once described by a federal judge as “reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

This weekend, the activists and their adventure-seeking friends ran, biked and boated for 225 miles, from the city of Baltimore to Baltimore County, to Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel, to make this point: Representative government isn’t supposed to look this way.

“There’s no logic to it,” said Barbara C. Ditzler of the League of Women Voters as she drove a chase car Saturday along a stretch of the route in Laurel. “How could you possibly provide constituent services?”

States readjust their congressional districts each decade after the U.S. census is taken, to ensure that each one has the right number of residents. In several states, including North Carolina and Ohio, Republicans have angered Democrats by creating fingery districts that make it more difficult for Democrats to gain or keep seats. Critics call the process “gerrymandering.”

In 2011, second-term Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) proved that Democrats could play the same game. With input from an advisory committee, public hearings and Maryland’s overwhelmingly Democratic congressional delegation, O’Malley proposed a map that made it easier for Democrats to gain a seat in the House of Representatives — taking a slice of rapidly growing, and heavily Democratic, Montgomery County, and adding it to the otherwise rural, conservative 6th Congressional District.

Maryland's 3rd congressional district

To calculate gerrymander scores, the district area was compared with the area of a circle with the same perimeter, then converted to a zero to 100 index. See how districts in other states compare at
Source: Wonkblog.

Other, similar matchups virtually ensured Democratic control of seven of the state’s eight congressional districts. Montgomery and Howard counties, along with the city of Baltimore, were each divided among three districts. Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, which lean more conservative, each were split among four districts.

When the redistricting took effect in 2012, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R), who had represented Western Maryland’s 6th District for two decades, lost to Democrat John K. Delaney, a financier from Potomac. Rep. Andy Harris of the 1st District is the lone remaining Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation.

“I know there’s a lot of resentment in my district,” said Delaney, who introduced legislation this summer calling for a national study of redistricting, a first step toward setting national standards. “I wasn’t around when the districts were created . . . I think it was done with a bit of callousness toward how communities feel.”

Critics say the changes have made districts across the country hyper-partisan, with a small number of primary voters selecting candidates who then easily win the general election.

“Gerrymandering is a political crime because it is meant to rig elections,” said Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D), a former executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonpartisan group that pushes for transparency and accountability in government. “It is meant to disempower voters.”

Harris’s redrawn district includes all of the Eastern Shore and northern slices of Carroll, Baltimore and Harford counties. It became markedly more conservative after redistricting, making elections safer for him at the expense of Republicans elsewhere in the state.

“Redistricting should be nonpartisan,” Harris said. “I support reforms that will take the politics out of the process.”

The newly drawn boundaries divvied up several African American, Latino and Asian American communities, especially in Prince George’s County and Montgomery, which critics say could make it more difficult for minority candidates to be elected there. Rep. Donna F. Edwards, an African American Democrat who represents the 4th District, led criticism of the new map in 2011.

O’Malley, who leaves office in January because of term limits and is contemplating running for president, has defended the districts as legal and fair. The Maryland General Assembly approved the map, a decision that voters backed in a ballot referendum. And the boundaries have survived legal challenges.

“Maryland has one of the strongest, most effective congressional delegations in the nation,” said Nina Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor. “This map ensures that every citizen in our state is fairly represented and well served by the people they elect to office.”

But members of Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and other activists say the scrambled map is proof that Maryland needs to change its redistricting process, taking responsibility away from party power-holders and appointing an independent panel to establish boundaries that make sense.

With the next census scheduled for 2020, these activists are trying to lay the groundwork to get the process changed. Legislation introduced to set up a task force to study the issue went nowhere, said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland. Now activists are appealing to Marylanders who they said must be offended by the bizarre shape of their districts.

“No one can look at these maps and say, ‘That’s how those districts should be drawn,’ ” said Bevan-Dangel, who ran more than 20 miles and biked 15 over the weekend. “To win on this issue, it has to be so high profile that elected officials can’t ignore it.”

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Democrat representing the 2nd District, said he has yet to hear of a viable alternative to the current system, despite efforts in California and elsewhere.

“This has been the process since we started our government,” Ruppersberger said. “And it’s not that I think that it’s a great process, but when you have an independent group, they become political, too. Who are they representing? Who appoints them?”

Both candidates for Maryland governor have said that the redistricting process needs to change, but they differ on how. Larry Hogan, the Republican nominee, says the state needs a new system that’s not politicized and controlled by Democrats. Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, the Democratic nominee, supports an independent panel but says there must be nationwide standards that all states follow. (Rep. John P. Sarbanes, who represents the 3rd District, took this same stance.)

“As governor, Larry won’t wait for a broken Congress to act,” Hogan spokesman Adam Dubitsky said. “He’ll immediately bring both parties together to end gerrymandering in Maryland.”

Brown said redistricting was “not something that was part of my portfolio” as lieutenant governor. He would not say whether he considered the districts to be fair.

“I’m really focused on the future and what districts ought to look like,” Brown said. “These are districts that the governor drew and the General Assembly adopted and the courts validated. They are what they are.”

Most runners who journeyed through the 3rd District over the weekend did so more for the ad­ven­ture than the cause. Conversations in the support van often focused on run times, shoe treads and healthful recipes, not politics. But anti-gerrymandering activists tweeted about their ad­ven­ture and plan to circulate a petition calling for change.

The course started Friday morning in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, originally home to mill workers but now an artsy area with boutiques and eateries.

It continued north to the Pimlico Race Course and across farmland and suburban neighborhoods in Baltimore County. Later, it was on to Howard County, where people jogged in the dark through Columbia.

Early Saturday, the group entered Montgomery, heading through Olney and past the White Oak Shopping Center in Silver Spring. By afternoon, the participants had reached Anne Arundel County and several water crossings in kayaks and motorboats, before arriving later that night in Annapolis.

The team regrouped on Sunday morning for a run through Annapolis, ending in front of the statehouse for a rally, where supporters chanted: “Tame the gerrymander! Tame the gerrymander!”