By Megan Poinski
Attorney Jason Torchinsky represented nine African-American residents who believe the new district lines were drawn to disenfranchise black voters. Assistant Attorney General Daniel Friedman argued that the new district lines meet constitutional standards. They made their cases before District Judges Roger Titus, Alexander Williams Jr.and 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Paul Niemeyer.
Torchinsky argued his clients want the redistricting map enacted by the General Assembly and Gov. Martin O’Malley redrawn so that there are three districts with a majority of residents who are racial minorities. The group bringing the lawsuit claims their rights under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution were violated, specifically by diluting the strength of African-American voters and racially gerrymandering minorities.
Time is short for a ruling
Given the current election schedule, there is not much time for a ruling to come – unless the primary schedule changes completely. The primary is set for April 3, and candidates must file certificates of candidacy by Jan. 11. Ballots must be drawn up, neighborhoods must be surveyed to verify precincts, and ballots must be prepared for military personnel serving overseas.
“We need every day between now and then to run the election,” Friedman argued.
Members of the judicial panel did not say when they might rule on the case – though they confirmed that Tuesday’s hearing gave them all of the evidence they need. The initial case schedule from Titus said a ruling could be expected by the end of January, which state officials found unacceptable. Friedman said that if a ruling could be filed before the new year, it might not derail the current primary schedule.
“I assure you, whatever we do, we will do it as diligently and efficiently as we can,” Niemeyer responded from the bench.
Titus said that the judges have the power to order a new primary date, if one is necessary. They could also order that local primaries be held separately from those for Congress and president, which would be held at a later date. Friedman said that option would cost the state more.
Torchinsky said he wants the court to order the state to draw the third majority minority district, but expressed no preference on whether it be drawn by the General Assembly or the courts. Friedman said that if the map goes back to the General Assembly while they are in session early next year, they could also legislatively set a new primary date.
Residents argue map was drawn by race
Torchinsky told the judges that the map was drawn primarily to break up existing African-American communities to dilute their numbers, putting more of them in majority white districts.
“This is a cynical manipulation of racial numbers in order to politically gerrymander,” he said.
Many of the districts approved by the legislature and governor are oddly shaped and break communities apart, Torchinsky argued. Black communities of interest are split apart, while white communities of interest were kept whole.
The 5th Congressional District – represented by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and including most of Southern Maryland and part of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties – was on its way to becoming a majority minority district, Torchinsky told the panel. However, the way it was redrawn changes that dynamic.
Torchinsky also argued that by making fewer majority minority districts, black votes are further diluted. The districts are drawn with an equal number of people living in each, but Torchinsky argued that black citizens have a lower voter turnout rate than their white counterparts. Therefore, putting African-Americans in a majority white district means they will be represented less.
Rounding out Torchinsky’s arguments was a request for prisoners to be counted in the place where they are incarcerated instead of the place where they live. Torchinsky said the new process of seeing inmates as residents of another place takes clout away from more rural areas of the state where the prisons are located, and puts it in the hands of larger jurisdictions, such as Baltimore City.
Responding to Torchinsky’s arguments, Niemeyer pointed out that with eight districts in the state, having two that are majority minorities adequately represents the number of African-Americans living in the state. Close to 30% of the state’s residents are black, and adding a third majority minority district would mean that African-American majorities would select 37.5% of Congressional representatives.
“That would be over-representation,” Niemeyer said, adding that other racial groups would then be justified in bringing similar cases to the court.
State argues map is constitutional
Friedman said that there were lots of other factors at play when the redistricting map was drawn. Race was not one of them. Instead, he said, the state was motivated by dividing the population into eight equal pieces, keeping military installments affected by Base Realignment and Closure in the same district, minimizing districts crossing over municipal or county lines, and protecting incumbents.
With all of that, he said, it would be impossible to think that race would be the motivating factor behind drawing district lines.
“It wasn’t perfect, but we are compromising,” Friedman said. “Whenever you improve on one axis, you hurt yourself on another axis.”
Friedman also argued that the increased interest in several congressional races – especially the 6th District, where several candidates are rising to challenge incumbent Rep. Roscoe Bartlett – have showed that the new districts are more competitive.
Additionally, Friedman added, African-Americans led the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee, and testified before the General Assembly in favor of the plan. Looking at several past county elections where the majority of voters were white, but the winners were black – including the 2006 election of Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett – shows that race does not necessarily play the biggest factor in electing officials, Friedman said.