Will Redistricting Panel Issue New Recommendations?
By Samuel Manas
The Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission held its first public meeting since November 2016 in Baltimore Monday, updating a small audience on the status of a Supreme Court case centered on partisan gerrymandering and taking comments.
But it’s unclear whether the commission, which was assembled two years ago by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to eradicate partisan gerrymandering in the state, will make further recommendations.
The Supreme Court case, Gill v. Whitford, centers around whether or not gerrymandering is constitutional. The Wisconsin case could, according to commission Co-Chairman Walter Olson, create a “strong legal avenue” for states to attack gerrymandering should the plaintiffs win. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case next month.
In August, a similar case brought by a group of Maryland Republican voters sought an injunction to bar the use of the state’s existing congressional map on the grounds that it violated their First Amendment rights. Their injunction was denied 2-1 by a federal court, with a hold placed on the Maryland lawsuit until after the Wisconsin case is finished.
Hogan’s redistricting commission has met several times, but Monday’s meeting was the first in almost a year. The Democratic-led General Assembly has twice rejected the panel’s recommendations to create an independent redistricting commission, taking the process out of the hands of partisan politicians, which Hogan favors.
But the commission is continuing to meet because two legislative delegations expressed concern that the commissioners had not held public meetings in Baltimore City or Montgomery County, so two additional sessions were scheduled for this fall.
Partisan gerrymandering is a national problem, but Maryland’s congressional map is often cited as one of the worst offenders. Democrats hold seven of the eight House seats apportioned to the state, but 41 percent of Marylanders voted for a Republican House candidate in the 2014 election. According to a February Goucher College poll, 73 percent of Marylanders would prefer an independent commission to draw congressional and legislative districts.
Maryland Democrats argue that enacting redistricting reform when other states are so gerrymandered in favor of Republicans would be a mistake. Hogan vetoed their alternate proposal, which would have created a nonpartisan commission to oversee redistricting only if five other states in the region passed similar legislation by 2032.
Fewer than 20 people attended Monday’s meeting, with many citing their participation in civic organizations like the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and Indivisible as their sole impetus for attending. Still, much of the meeting was spent discussing voters’ grievances over the division of communities, the lack of clarity regarding who was represented by whom, anger at state Democrats, and outreach strategies.
Beyond the public meetings, the commission’s future gets murkier, since it issued its recommendations in 2015 and is officially scheduled to go out of business.
“We hope [the commission’s] life is extended,” said Alexander Williams, the other co-chairman.
The next public meeting for the commission will take place in Rockville in the coming weeks. It remains to be seen whether the commission will issue supplemental recommendations based on these new meetings.
“What we heard today is exactly what we heard in the rest of the state,” Williams said.