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Hearing on Md.’s legislative redistricting features a clash of experts

Retired Court of Appeals Judge Alan Wilner is serving as a special magistrate reviewing the challenges to Maryland’s legislative redistricting plan. (The Daily Record/File photo)

The opening day of a hearing into legal challenges to Maryland’s legislative reapportionment featured dueling experts. Both sides offered professorial dissertations on gerrymandering and “compactness scoring.”

Republicans claim the maps are highly gerrymandered to the advantage of Democrats. They told Special Magistrate Alan Wilner that they want the Court of Appeals to toss them out.

Sean Trende, a redistricting expert who frequently works as an expert witness for Republicans nationally, said at least a dozen districts in Maryland fail multiple tests for compactness.

“You really could redraw these districts in ways that are not quite as absurd,” Trende said.

Wilner questioned Trende on how the state’s irregular shape which is split by the Chesapeake Bay could affect redistricting. Districts in the western portion of Maryland score low for compactness.

Trende said that’s practically unavoidable because of low populations.

“Those aren’t the districts being challenged,” he said. “The challenged districts land in the center of Maryland where the geography really doesn’t demand that you draw bizarrely shaped districts.”

In total, there are four challenges to the map the General Assembly passed that redraws the districts for 47 Senate and 141 House seats.

Two separate groups of Republican lawmakers filed interlocking challenges to the plan last week. Those challenges contend that a dozen or so districts violate state constitutional requirements that they be compact, contiguous and mindful of crossing jurisdictional lines and natural boundaries.

Lawyers representing the General Assembly and Maryland State Board of Elections rejected allegations of partisan gerrymandering. The maps, they said, are legal, using a court-drawn map from a challenge 20 years ago as its foundation.

“Maryland rings no alarm bells whatsoever,” said Alan Lichtman, a political science professor at American University who testified on behalf of the state.

“If politicians are involved, it has politics,” said Lichtman. “You can’t scrub away and make politics zero. That’s not the question to ask. The question to ask is has politics gone too far to create an unfair redistricting plan.”

Lichtman walked the court through his analysis of the General Assembly plan that he said revealed no concerns about unfair redistricting.

“If Maryland was gerrymandered, it would pop out on these charts,” said Lichtman. “You’d see it.”

Additionally, the challenges contend the maps are gerrymandered with the intent to dilute Republican voters.

Del. Nic Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, said the legislative plan passed by the General Assembly would affect political decisions on local issues. County delegations have more control over bills that specifically affect those jurisdictions, called “local courtesy” in legislative parlance.

But two districts crossing into Anne Arundel County are made up primarily of Howard and Prince George’s counties, respectively.

“The practical effect is they vote on Anne Arundel County issues,” said Kipke, adding that bringing in lawmakers from outside the county “dilutes the vote from Anne Arundel County representatives.”

Two individuals also filed separate challenges to districts in Anne Arundel and Washington counties.

The hearing will continue Thursday morning.

Wilner, the retired Court of Appeals judge, set aside three days for a hearing on the 2022 state legislative redistricting plan. The special magistrate will send a report to the full Court of Appeals, which will make a final decision on the separate challenges.

Challenges to redistricting plans are not uncommon in Maryland. Wilner presided over similar hearings a decade ago.

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.