ANNAPOLIS — There was cake and ice cream and talk of reform in the state capital to celebrate the 240th birthday of a man whose name is synonymous with political shenanigans and contorted election districts.
Elbridge Gerry, the Massachusetts legislator and merchant and Revolutionary War-era diplomat, was front and center Thursday in front of the Maryland State House as a coalition of good government groups called on the governor and General Assembly to reform how congressional and state legislative districts are drawn every 10 years.
“Our maps look like they do because each congressperson had some part of Maryland they wanted in their (new) district,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.
The coalition, which includes Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of Maryland and the Annapolis chapter of National Council of Jewish Women, wants the state to move away from its current form of decennial redistricting, which is led by the governor and legislative leaders, and move to a system that is nonpartisan and independent of pressure from office holders.
Bevan-Dangel and others say the current shape of Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, drawn in 2011, represents all that is wrong with the current redistricting process.
“It is the least contiguous district in Maryland and among the least compact of any in the country,” Bevan-Dangel said.
The district, represented by Rep. John P. Sarbanes, stretches from Owings Mills and Perry Hall in the west and east sides of Baltimore County, through the city and Howard and Montgomery Counties, and south to Annapolis in Anne Arundel County. The district is held together, in places, by the thinnest ligaments of connective electoral district tissue.
In 2011, Roll Call newspaper in Washington, D.C., dubbed the district one of the five ugliest examples of partisan gerrymandering and nicknamed the district “The Pinwheel of Death.”
Congressional and legislative redistricting plans in Maryland have come under fire in the courtroom and at the ballot box both in 2002 and 2012.
In 2002, the Court of Appeals threw out and redrew a legislative redistricting plan drafted by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Opponents of the 2011 legislative and congressional redistricting plans drawn by Gov. Martin J. O’Malley faced similar challenges in court but were all struck down. MDPetitions.com, led by Western Maryland Republican Del. Neil C. Parrott successfully petitioned the congressional maps to referendum. The effort ultimately failed amid complaints that the ballot question was confusing.
Court challenges to the maps also failed.
In April, voters who continue to oppose the current congressional districts filed an appeal in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to have the maps overturned.
Bevan-Dangel said her group is not seeking to file suit but is hoping to force the issue in Annapolis through legislation in the coming session. Currently, about 21 states use some form of independent commission to reapportion representation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County, is a longtime supporter of changing the redistricting process in the state. In 2005, Brochin was the lead sponsor of legislation that would have created a study commission to look at ways of changing the current law. He has sponsored four similar bills during his three terms in office as well as joined Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore County, in a lawsuit opposing the 2012 legislative redistricting maps.
“I don’t know that I’ve given up, but I’d certainly need to find some common ground with the presiding officers before I’d be willing to put in a bill like that again,” Brochin said. “There has to be a willingness to give on something. There has to be a willingness to talk, and I don’t see any interest in the leadership of the majority party in having this discussion.”
Brochin said he believes voters are catching on to the problems in the current system.
“It’s a smarter voter population than ever,” Brochin said. “People are starting to get it.”