ANNAPOLIS — Supporters of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s effort to create an independent commission to redraw congressional maps every decade are hoping the third time is the charm.
Hogan’s effort, unsuccessful on two previous occasions, is likely to face continued opposition from Democrats in the legislature who want a national or, at least, regional approach, and it faces competition from lawmakers who are proposing efforts to create regional compacts.
“I believe the case for the bill speaks for itself,” said Walter Olsen, co-chair of a commission Hogan created to make recommendations on changing the political process.
Olsen called Hogan’s proposal one of the most comprehensive in the country. But Olsen told the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee at a Monday hearing on Hogan’s plan that time is of the essence as the Supreme Court looks to take up two redistricting cases, including a challenge of a Maryland congressional district.
“The eyes of the nation are on Maryland, not because we have such a bad gerrymander but because the Supreme Court late next month will be looking at those cases,” Olsen said. “Let us rise to the opportunity and make this the year for reform.”
Hogan has unsuccessfully pushed for the reform since he was first sworn in in 2015. Democrats have repeatedly blocked the efforts, citing their belief that there’s a need to reform congressional redistricting at a national level or at least in concert with a handful of other states where Democrats and Republicans would be equally affected.
“In today’s political climate it can often seem rare to find something that everyone on both sides of the political spectrum can agree on,” said Alexandra, L. “Ali” Keane, a deputy legislative officer for Hogan. “Nonpartisan redistricting reform is one of those issues.”
But while Keane cited strong public support, it’s an issue that Hogan, just the second Republican governor since 1969, has had little success in finding consensus with the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Olsen said Hogan’s proposal takes the best practices from other states, including Arizona and California.
Olsen said cases before the U.S Supreme Court are potential game changers for Maryland and other states.
“No one can quite guess what is in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s mind; many people believe that there’s a very serious chance that we will have a new constitutional standard, which might upend current Maryland practice,” Olsen said.
State’s current system
As it stands, the governor and legislature draw the boundaries in a process that has seen Maryland’s eight congressional districts change from an even split between Democrats and Republicans to a 7-1 Democratic advantage in just two changes of the lines under Democratic Govs. Parris N. Glendening and Martin O’Malley.
Voters would need to approve Hogan’s proposed changes in November. Without such legislation, Hogan could be responsible for drawing the new maps if he is re-elected.
Keane told lawmakers “Maryland should be a leader” on the issue of redistricting reform “and should not be rated as having some of the most gerrymandered districts in the nation.”
The governor’s bill is not the only one under consideration by the General Assembly.
Also before lawmakers are two bills with identical titles that create regional redistricting compacts, albeit in different combinations.
Dels. Al Carr and Kirill Reznik, both Montgomery County Democrats, each sponsored legislation called the Potomac Compact for Fair Representation.
Carr’s bill establishes a compact with Virginia contingent upon the two states passing similar legislation to create independent redistricting commissions by 2020 and Congress passing legislation allowing for multi-seat congressional districts by 2022.
Reznik’s measure also calls for an independent redistricting commission if Virginia passes identical legislation by 2020.
Last year, the legislature passed legislation that would have created an independent commission provided that five other states — New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia — passed identical legislation by 2032. Hogan vetoed that bill, and the legislature has delayed a veto override until the last day of this session.
Supporters of reform point to a poll by Goucher College showing strong support for changing how Maryland draws its congressional districts.
Supreme Court cases
The renewed effort by Hogan comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a number of congressional redistricting cases, including cases from Maryland and Wisconsin.
Republican voters from Maryland are asking the court to examine the state’s 6th Congressional District. The plaintiffs allege the district violates the First Amendment right of Republican voters to political association because the state legislature created a district built to ensure the election of a Democrat. The suit also alleges the district, drawn in 2010, was retaliation for the district having elected a Republican in a Democratic state.
The issue has pitted Hogan against Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, with the governor urging the court to strike down the state’s plan. Frosh has urged the court to uphold the district.
The court is also reviewing a similar case from Wisconsin in which the districts were drawn to hurt Democrats.