Last Chance To End Gerrymandering

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I received special valentine cards the morning of February 14, but they weren’t from my wife. The valentines received that morning at my General Assembly desk from the governor and the League of Women Voters had notes like “just as fine as a fairly drawn district line” and “roses are red, violets are blue, together let’s ensure voters’ votes remain true.” All sweetness aside, with the decennial U.S. Census beginning next month, and that data soon being used to redraw congressional and state legislative district lines, Maryland's ongoing gerrymandering is hard to swallow.

Last year's Supreme Court Benisek v. Lamone decision squarely placed redistricting reform in the hands of individual states. Change must happen here. The Maryland Constitution requires that state legislative lines be drawn so that each district would be “of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and be of substantially equal population,” with due regard given to “natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.” This, however, does not apply to Maryland’s congressional districts. If Maryland’s Constitution applied the same standards to both state and congressional districts, Maryland’s current congressional district lines would be unconstitutional under Maryland law. In 2002, Maryland’s highest court applied these same Maryland Constitutional standards to invalidate gerrymandered state districts in response to 15 petitions challenging the map prepared by Governor Parris Glendening and the General Assembly. In any event, gerrymandering reform in Maryland requires amending Maryland's Constitution, so any reform passed by the General Assembly would then be placed on the ballot to be ratified by the people.

This year, I've again introduced anti-gerrymandering legislation: House Bills 1460, 1491 and 1495. HB 1491 is the same bill I proposed last year, which would require that our requirements for state legislative boundaries be extended to congressional boundaries. It is a bipartisan effort and has 65 co-sponsors. HB 1495 would require that state legislative districts be drawn without accounting for how people are registered to vote, how they have voted in the past, or their political party, in accordance with Maryland District Court ruling in Benisek v. Lamone. HB 1460 would impose those same requirements on the redrawing of congressional districts.

Governor Hogan has introduced anti-gerrymandering legislation for the fifth year, this time as the Redistricting Reform Act of 2020. The Redistricting Reform Act of 2020, which I've co-sponsored, is two-pronged. House Bill 341, cross-filed as Senate Bill 266, is aimed at congressional redistricting. If enacted, HB 341 provides for Maryland's congressional and state legislative districts to be drawn by an independent commission, rather than our rather partisan General Assembly. Each legislative district would be drawn to be geographically compact and to respect communities and natural boundaries, without regard to how individuals are registered to vote or their actual voting patterns and without regard for incumbents or potential political candidates. House Bill 346, cross-filed as Senate Bill 284, would take effect upon ratification of HB 341 and provides the structure needed to implement it. HB 346 would create a nine-member commission of three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents who are not political insiders. The commission would conduct public hearings in a transparent process before drawing a redistricting plan and submitting it to the General Assembly for ratification.

Delegate Wilkins, a Democrat from Montgomery County, introduced House Bill 1431, cross-filed as Senate Bill 967. This bill, also called the Fair Maps Act and which I have also co-sponsored, would extend the requirements for state legislative boundaries to congressional districts. It would also require both state legislative and congressional districts be drawn in accordance with the federal Voting Rights Act with special attention given to areas with similar interests, such as racial, ethnic, cultural or historic interests, and not diluting the voting power of racial or ethnic groups. Maryland has been dragging its feet on redistricting reform, despite having some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the nation and being the subject of the Benisek decision. It is simply appalling that former Governor O’Malley openly admitted in court proceedings to an ultimate redistricting goal of keeping incumbents in power and disenfranchising voters for political reasons. According to Common Cause, nine states have adopted independent, partisan-balanced commissions similar to that proposed by Governor Hogan. Other states have adopted or expanded language like that in our state constitution and my bill (HB 1491) to restrict partisan congressional district gerrymandering. Nonetheless, redistricting reform legislation, whether proposed by myself, Governor Hogan or others, has routinely been killed in committee without even being submitted to the entire General Assembly for a vote. The redistricting reform bills were heard before the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee on March 2. A vote has yet to occur on the bills. Let’s hope and encourage the committee to allow a floor vote this year. Now is the time to end GerryMaryland.

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