Activists in Annapolis called Thursday for an end to the political scheme known as gerrymandering, in which legislators manipulate voting boundaries to gain an electoral advantage.
Demonstrators said they want politicians largely out of the redistricting process in exchange for independent panels that would draw the lines.
Carol Ann Hecht, a member of the National Council of Jewish Women, said Maryland officials “need to listen to the people and enact real redistricting reform so that gerrymandering is buried and Maryland’s congressional maps empower rather than disempower voters.”
The event, which took place in front of the statehouse and drew about two dozen demonstrators, came as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) prepares to launch a bipartisan commission to provide recommendations for overhauling the system. Hogan’s aides have said an announcement about the panel is likely within the next few weeks.
The governor said during his State of the State address that an independent commission should handle redistricting.
Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford (R), who was not scheduled to appear at the event, made an impromptu decision to meet with the activists, describing Maryland’s existing voting districts as a “terrible situation.”
Maryland is widely considered to have some of the worst gerrymandering in the nation, with many of its districts twisting in ways that make little sense geographically.
The state’s 3rd Congressional District, which meanders through four counties in central Maryland, is among the most notorious examples of an irrational design. Phil Andrews, a former Montgomery County Council member and ex-director of Common Cause Maryland, said it “looks like blood spatter from a crime scene.”
Republicans have accused former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley (D) of making matters worse when he proposed a map in 2011 that divided many conservative-leaning counties and added left-leaning populations to others. The move virtually ensured that Democrats would control seven of the state’s eight congressional districts.
The U.S. Constitution gives states the authority to determine congressional districts, and most do so through their legislatures. But controversy has arisen in recent years over whether independent commissions can do the work.
The Constitution’s Elections Clause states that the “Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.”
Voters in Arizona and California have approved ballot initiatives to create independent redistricting commissions, but state lawmakers from Arizona filed a lawsuit to challenge the plan there.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 last month that voters have a right to take redistricting authority away from their states.
Thursday’s demonstration included a mock birthday celebration for the gerrymandering’s 19th century namesake, 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.
“Compared to Maryland state officials, Elbridge Gerry was an amateur at gerrymandering,” Andrews said.
Activists from the League of Women Voters also joined the demonstration.