March 19, 2012 at 7:11 am
By Megan Poinski
Since the new district maps to elect members of Congress and the legislature have sparked anger and lawsuits, many throughout the state have questioned the way that the lines are drawn, especially after the legislative redistricting plan quietly became law without hearings in the General Assembly.
Nine bills have been proposed to amend the process for redistricting. They all make different kinds of changes to the redistricting process, from changing the makeup of the commission that draws the lines, to increasing the comment period on the proposed maps, to putting a committee in place to take a look at the process and make recommendations.
To date, all the bills have been heard by committees – Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs, or House Rules and Executive Nominations. No votes have been taken on any of them yet.
Del. Hattie Harrison, who chairs the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee, said that she hasn’t heard much feedback on what the members might want to do with these bills. No voting meeting has been scheduled yet, but the votes will be taken by the end of the month.
Sen. Joan Carter-Conway, chairwoman of Education, Health and Environmental Affairs, was not optimistic about the bills.
“They’ll probably mostly die,” she said.
Politics of line drawing
Sponsors said they did not sponsor the bills because they were unhappy with the districts they got.
Sen. Jim Brochin, D-Baltimore County, primary sponsor on three of the redistricting policy bills, first sponsored the same trio six years ago – after “ridiculous gerrymandering” and the redrawn maps from the Court of Appeals gave him an extremely favorable district.
“I don’t think the politicians should be choosing their voters,” Brochin said. “The voters should choose their politicians.”
Del. Steve Schuh, R-Anne Arundel, introduced his bill creating a new redistricting process last year. He said that he just wants to remove politics from redistricting, a practice that results in “subverting democracy.”
“I and many people in the legislature have been embarrassed by the national laughingstock Maryland has become,” Schuh said.
Del. Cathy Vitale, R- Anne Arundel, said that she proposed her bill – which gives a much longer time period for the public to see the proposed redistricting maps and comment on them – because people are interested in the legislative districts they end up with.
“It’s important that this body shows the electorate that we are listening and we care,” Vitale said.
Schuh and Brochin both said that politics pay too much of a role in the way that lines are drawn. Both said it’s unlikely that changes will be made to the process since Democrats are so entrenched at the State House.
“There’s too large a differential for the majority party to be willing to let go of the benefits of gerrymandering,” Schuh said.
What the bills would do
Del. Susan McComas, R-Harford, and Del. Aisha Braveboy, D-Prince George’s, have both proposed bills that would create task forces to study redistricting.
McComas proposes a 13-member task force with two delegates and two senators (one from each party, appointed by the House speaker and Senate president), representatives from several civic voting rights groups, and two members of the public. Commission members are charged with reviewing current processes in Maryland and elsewhere, suggesting changes by the end of 2013 for the General Assembly to consider in its 2014 session.
Braveboy’s bill is nearly identical, though it requires representatives of organizations representing Asians and Pacific Islanders, blacks and African-Americans, and Hispanics in the task force.
McComas said that she’d be happy if either bill passed. She said she considered what she wanted to do about redistricting – and what had a shot at passing the General Assembly.
More time for public comment
Vitale’s bill calls for a constitutional amendment, but leaves the current process by which lines are drawn intact. It increases the amount of time that members of the public have to see and digest the proposed districts. The redistricting map would have to be made public 60 days before the session when it is considered. For at least 30 days, public comments on that map would be accepted. If the plan is revised, it needs to be made public for 15 more days before the session begins.
Vitale said that the fact that the governor and his advisory committee held only one hearing on the legislative redistricting map days after the map was published and right before Christmas made it difficult for people to react to it.
“The current system doesn’t work, and it doesn’t provide for any input after the deed is done,” she said.
Bi-partisan commissions proposed
Schuh’s bill creates a nonpartisan seven-member Legislative Districting and Apportionment Commission. The pool of potential commission members is nominated by the Court of Appeals. Some are selected by both majority and minority leadership in the General Assembly, while others are selected by their fellow members.
Schuh also changes how the plan is approved. Currently, the legislative plan can quietly become law after 45 days if no other plan is passed by the General Assembly. Schuh’s bill requires the commission to file its plans with the Secretary of State, who forwards it to the Court of Appeals for final approval. If the map does not meet legal standards, the Court of Appeals will redraw it.
Schuh said that there is very little appetite in the General Assembly to takes the politics out of redistricting.
Brochin’s three bills create a nine-member commission to draw new districts and set standards to remove political consideration from the process. The commission – made up of both parties, no public officials or lobbyists, with four members chosen by the governor, two chosen by leaders of each chamber of the General Assembly, and one chosen by the other members – that would put together public meetings to discuss redistricting.
Using information collected from these public meetings, the commission and Department of Legislative Services will draw new districts. Current addresses of elected officials, political affiliations of registered voters, previous election results, or polls could not be used to draw lines.
Once the maps are drawn, they must be presented for a dozen public hearings around the state, and must be voted on by the General Assembly in order to become law.
Sen. David Brinkley, R-Frederick, proposed a bill that extends the requirements for legislative redistricting to congressional redistricting. Congressional districts would also have to be compact and contiguous, and consider natural and political subdivision boundaries. It was cross-filed in the House of Delegates by Del. Neil Parrott, R-Washington.
Brinkley is running for Congress in the 6th Congressional District, in which he was born and raised, but the new plan drew him outside the district.