A Maryland task force proposed Tuesday that the state allow an independent panel to draw the state’s voting districts, widely cited as some of the most gerrymandered in the nation.
The proposals, approved 9 to 1 by a commission appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), will go to Maryland lawmakers as they prepare for the next legislative session to begin in January.
“These reforms would put Maryland in the front ranks of redistricting reform and establish an independent, balanced approach to creating congressional and state legislative districts,” the task force said in a report released Tuesday.
Democrats, who hold strong majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, have already expressed reluctance to strip redistricting authority from elected officials after the party lost its grip on the U.S. House and Senate in recent elections. They are concerned that Republicans, who control 32 governorships and 24 state legislatures, will not make similar changes to help prevent gerrymandering of congressional districts nationally.
Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has said the state should hold out for Congress to pass a federal redistricting law — an unlikely scenario considering that Republicans control both chambers — or else work toward a regional agreement that includes nearby states such as Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware.
Under Maryland’s current system, the governor and legislature play a role in the redistricting process.
Hogan promised during his 2014 gubernatorial campaign that he would work with both parties to end gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of voting boundaries to give one party a political advantage. In announcing the redistricting commission, he said fair and competitive elections had become “nearly impossible in our state.”
The task force said a nine-member panel divided evenly among Republicans, Democrats and independents should draw the state’s voting districts. It also recommended prohibiting the use of voter-registration information, past voting results and candidates’ home addresses in determining boundaries.
The legislature would have to approve revised district maps, with a supermajority required to reject them. Rejection by a simple majority would send the plans back to the independent redistricting panel for changes.
The governor would also have an option to sign or veto the plans, but lawmakers could override a veto with a supermajority.
The commission’s proposals come after hearings across the state.
Advocates for independent redistricting processes applauded the recommendations.
“We’re very pleased,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of Common Cause Maryland. “Certainly the public hearings showed palpable frustration, and the commission thought big and bold with what they recommended.”
Critics of gerrymandering often cite Maryland as having some of the most irrational voting boundaries in the nation. A federal judge once referred to the 3rd Congressional District, which meanders through four counties, as “a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”
Republicans accused Hogan’s predecessor, Martin O’Malley (D), of manipulating the lines when he divided many of the state’s conservative-leaning counties and added left-leaning populations to others. The changes virtually ensured that Democrats would control seven of the state’s eight congressional districts.
But gerrymandering is not particular to Democrats or Republicans, as Hogan acknowledged when he launched the commission in August.
“Republicans are not always the victims, and Democrats are not always the afflictors,” the governor said at the time. “There are states across the country where Republicans are just as guilty of the same type of gerrymandering that we have here in Maryland.”
Del. Alonzo T. Washington (D-Prince George’s), whom Busch appointed to the 11-member redistricting task force, was the only vote against the recommendations. Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City) was absent, giving the panel only 10 votes.
Tuesday’s recommendations come less than six months after the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that voters can take redistricting authority away from state legislatures. The decision involved a case in which Arizona state lawmakers challenged a voter-approved initiative that created a citizens panel to draw voting boundaries.
Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, New York and Washington state have created similar panels to determine congressional districts.