ANNAPOLIS — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Thursday vowed to change the way the state draws congressional districts and said he expects a newly created commission will lead to an amendment to Maryland’s constitution by the 2016 election.
Hogan said the 11-member commission would work through the year looking at ways to move the state toward an independent process for the decennial reapportionment of state legislative and congressional districts.
“When it comes to the right answers, fair elections are perhaps the most basic promise that those in power can offer to our citizens,” Hogan said.
“Fair elections and a healthy and strong, competitive tw0-party system have been nearly impossible in our state,” Hogan said.
The governor made redistricting reform a part of his platform in this year’s State of the State address but delayed action to wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on a challenge to an independent commission in Arizona. The court ultimately ruled in favor of that state’s commission.
The governor Thursday signed an executive order creating the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission that includes seven members appointed by Hogan. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. will each be able to appoint one member with the final two appointments made by Republican leaders in the House and Senate.
The commission, which will expire in November 2016, is expected to review and recommend ways to create an independent commission for drawing legislative and congressional boundaries. Those recommendations would be used to draft an amendment to the state constitution — which requires a super majority in each chamber — and then be put before voters in 2016.
“Maryland is home to some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, a distinction that we should not be proud of,” Hogan said, singling out the state’s 3rd Congressional district, represented by Rep. John Sarbanes, as a particularly offensive example.
“That’s not a Rorschach ink blot test,” Hogan said pointing to a map of Sarbanes’ district. “That’s actually the outline of the district.”
The district has at times been called a broken-winged pterodactyl and blood-splatter from a crime scene.
“The current district maps are ludicrous and the only rationale for this is politics and guaranteeing one-party rule,” Hogan said.
The announcement met with praise from groups such as the League of Women Voters and Common Cause Maryland who have championed the creation of an independent commission for several years. Both groups will have members on the commission.
“Our bottom line is an open and transparent process,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. “This is our bare minimum for the creation of congressional and legislative districts.”
Bills over the better part of a decade seeking to reform the process have met with no success in Annapolis. Legislative leaders say real reform is needed at the national level and called on Congress to address the issue.
Miller said he was concerned that commission as created by Hogan would result in a pre-ordained outcome and said some politics was involved in the effort.
“I don’t want to mischaracterize anyone’s intentions, but it’s not just a page, it’s a chapter out of the Republican governor’s playbook,” Miller said.
Hogan’s effort is not dissimilar to an effort by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to make that state’s redistricting process more independent — it’s also one which observers there say is unlikely to have support among the Republican-controlled legislature.
“It needs to be handled with uniform rules and regulations and needs to be decided by the Congress itself on how to proceed,” Miller said.
Busch also called for a national policy on redistricting.
“If you’re going to have a national effect, you need a national policy,” Busch said.
“I would suggest to you that the last time the redistricting map was petitioned to referendum (in 2012) it passed in the state of Maryland by 64 percent,” Busch said. “Now put that in perspective, there’s no governor who got 64 percent of the vote since William Donald Schaefer’s first election. So, the general outrage from the public evidently didn’t show up when it went to referendum.”
Hogan’s announcement met with sharp criticism from Patrick Murray, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, who said Hogan was “dabbling in national politics instead of focusing on issues that impact middle-class families.”
“Legislative districting is a national issue, which deserves a national solution. Republicans drew the lines in six of the nation’s 10 most gerrymandered states. Republicans drew the lines in eight of the nation’s 10 most gerrymandered districts,” Murray said in a statement. “If Governor Hogan is serious about redistricting reform, he should ask his allies at the RNC, the RGA, and on Capitol Hill to develop a national solution.”