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Maryland House approves legislative redistricting map along party lines

Del. Mark Fisher, a Calvert County Republican, points to the new district he would find himself in under a proposed legislative reapportionment. The two yellow sections are separated by the Potomac river where no bridge is located. Fisher said it would take a lawmaker who represents the area nearly 45 minutes to travel from one section to the other. The crossing of the river “is inherently unconstitutional” under Maryland law because it ignores the natural boundary of the body of water, Fisher said. (The Daily Record/Bryan Sears)

ANNAPOLIS —  A legislative commission’s proposal to redraw the state’s 47 legislative districts received final approval in the House of Delegates Thursday.

The plan, approved 95-42 along party lines, redraws the lines for 47 senators and 141 delegates. It cannot be vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan, who adamantly opposed it. Proponents and opponents both expect the new map will face a legal challenge.

Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga, R-Baltimore and Harford counties, brandished a copy of the Maryland Constitution as she argued the legislative proposal violated state law.

“If you go forward with a map drawn by politicians we will see it in court, and I believe it will be overturned,” said Szeliga.

This would not be the first time a Maryland court has reviewed redistricting plans. In 2002, the Court of Appeals threw out a legislative map. The court then appointed a special master to redraw the state’s legislative districts.

A redistricting plan in 1972 was ruled unconstitutional. In 1984 and 1993, the court warned the General Assembly about redistricting plans in those years.

“As we have said from the start, gerrymandering is voter suppression,” said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Fair Maps Maryland and a former Hogan aide. “Not only is it wrong, it’s illegal, and the Maryland legislature is guilty of it. Fair Maps Maryland was created to fight for free and fair elections and today’s vote doesn’t change that. At this very moment, we have attorneys and election experts working on a lawsuit that will be filed in the Maryland Court of Appeals in the near future.”

For nearly three hours split between two sessions, the Republican minority engaged in a thrust-and-parry debate with Democrats, who are the supermajority in both the House and Senate. The debate, sometimes fiery, took on the feel of a legal deposition as Republicans attempted to put Democrats on the record as to how the new decennial plan was created.

Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles and chair of the Economic Matters Committee, said the current map is based on a 2002 plan approved by the state’s highest court.

“Now, to my colleagues from across the aisle, I love to hear what you feel,” said Wilson. “Tell me how you feel. I’ll tell you the facts are what they are. You can take it to court. You did in 2002. You did in 2010. The map will be found legally sufficient.”

Republicans offered one amendment during the morning session. That proposal stripped all the language of the original resolution, replacing it with a proposal offered by the Citizens Redistricting Committee, a nine-member panel Hogan appointed as the embodiment of his vision of a more independent redistricting process.

Senate Democrats a week earlier rejected that same proposal. Some in the Senate portrayed the governor as a snake oil salesman leading a traveling wagon show.

In the House, Democrats portrayed the plan from Hogan’s commission as flawed. Hogan was portrayed as an autocratic ruler in the vein of Revolutionary War despot.

Del. Eric Luedtke, D-Montgomery and House Majority Leader, said Hogan’s panel was outside the traditional process. Special rules put in place by Hogan including requirements that his panel defer to single member House districts and ignoring incumbents. Hogan is the first Republican governor in state history to hold office during redistricting.

The House and Senate put in place a parallel and competing panel that looked more like what was done in previous years.

“Our very system of government is founded on the idea that the legislative branch is independent from the executive,” said Luedtke, adding “it’s why we fought a revolution.”

Luedtke said the rules Hogan laid out for his commission were tantamount to a “royal decree.”

“Frankly, I am deeply concerned at the idea that this legislature should bow in obeisance to any executive,” he said.

A second amendment offered in the afternoon would have created 141 single-member House districts.

“Why does Maryland insist on adhering to this anachronistic patchwork hodgepodge of one, two and three-delegate districts?” asked Del. Haven Shoemaker, R-Carroll and House Minority Whip. “It makes no sense.”

In Maryland, delegates are elected within a larger legislative or Senate district. In some cases, three seats are available on an at-large basis. In other cases a combination of districts in which two seats are at large with a single-member subdistrict are used.

Neither the legislative nor the citizens panel’s map adhered to a strict use of single-member districts. Republicans, who are outnumbered in the legislature in overall voter registration across the state, argued that the use of single-member districts “rigged” the electoral process against them by protecting vulnerable Democrats or otherwise is used to hurt Republicans.

“You don’t need to rig the game to win here in the state of Maryland,” Del. Jason Buckel, R-Allegany and House Minority leader, said to Democrats. “You don’t need to rig the game. You’re going to win. You’re going to be the majority party based upon the census data and the political trajectory of this state. You don’t need to rig the game to win.”