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Walter Olson, center, co-chairman of the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission, reads revised portions of the panel's final report as Michael Goff, left, a commissioner and board member of Common Cause Maryland, looks on. Seated on the right of Olson is co-chairman and retired US District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr.  

Redistricting reform faces tough road ahead

ANNAPOLIS — Decennial redistricting in Maryland could change under a set of recommendations approved by a commission appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan.

But the plan approved Tuesday faces an uncertain future as supporters and opponents alike said the 62-page report could have benefited from more time and that it heads to a legislature controlled by Democrats, many of whom have expressed concerns if not outright opposition to making some of the more major changes.

“I’m 90 percent pleased with the product,” said Christopher Summers, a commissioner and Hogan supporter. “We didn’t end up with redistricting-lite where we, because of deference, give the Speaker of the House the power to appoint someone to a commission and the (Senate) president and the minority. That, to me, is just a different shade of lipstick on the pig.”

Summers, in October, called on his fellow commissioners to make a bold statement with plan that could be a model for other states considering redistricting reform.

“Real change requires real change,” Summers said. “And that’s why if you want to do redistricting reform in Maryland, we set up a model where you do not have anyone in the legislative body involved in the process.

“It’s very close, given the time frame we had to work with,” Summers said. “Believe me, if this report, by the grace of God, is adopted, it’s still a monumental shift away from the present system.”

The recommendations, which are non-binding, were approved on the same day they were scheduled to be delivered to the governor as well as House Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

Both presiding officers have expressed opposition to potential reforms, saying that a larger federal effort is needed.

Those reservations and the outright opposition expressed two weeks ago by Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City and chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, have supporters like Summers and opponents such as Del. Alonzo Washington, D-Prince George’s County, saying the fate of any legislation based on the panel’s work faces a difficult future in the coming legislative session.

“I think it’s a good effort,” said Washington, who was the lone vote of opposition among the 10 commissioners who attended and voted on the report. “I don’t think it something that can actually get done in Annapolis. Something that’s a pragmatic approach, some thing that we can actually propose to the General Assembly that can get passed through the House and the Senate. I don’t think this is the best approach right now.”

Washington said the plan fails to provide specific guidance for the General Assembly on drawing congressional districts outside the creation of an independent commission.

Carter Conway, who was not present, has expressed opposition to an independent commission, which would require a change to the state Constitution. She said in October that any such legislation, which would ultimately have to pass through her committee, would be doomed.

Among the key recommendations:

  • Establishing a nine-member independent commission charged with drawing state and congressional districts. The members would come from a pool of 30 selected by another panel with the final nine picked through a lottery process.
  • Requiring that congressional districts hold to the same compact and contiguous standards used when drawing state legislative districts.
  • Adoption of a 1 percent variance standard for drawing state legislative districts. Members of the governor’s panel said the current practice of a 5 percent variance can be used to draw districts that are as much as a 10 percent spread, a practice the commission’s report noted “has been used for political purposes unrelated to sound redistricting goals.”

Hogan created the commission months after promising reform in his State of the State speech.

Maryland has been criticized for having some of the most gerrymandered congressional districts in the country as a result of the involvement of the governor and legislature in crafting the new districts every decade.

The 3rd Congressional district, represented by Rep. John Sarbanes, is cited by critics as a particularly offensive example. Its design is sometimes called “the pinwheel of death,” a “Rorschach ink blot test,” “blood spatter at a crime scene” or a “broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.”

The commission also recommended that the state adopt a system of single-member delegate districts.

Currently, most of the 47 Senate districts elect three delegates at large with some exceptions including observing districts that cross jurisdictional lines, such as District 44, which elects two members from Baltimore County and a third, single member, from the city side of the district.

But some point to districts such as the 42nd which extends from the city line through Towson to Pennsylvania. Overall, the entire district is competitive and leans Republican but a single-member House district was carved out that leans Democratic. Critics say that district was specifically drawn to protect incumbent Democratic Del. Steve Lafferty.The remaining two-thirds of the district elected two Republicans.