By Len Lazarick
As we look back to the future this week, the problems of congressional and legislative redistricting are not new in Maryland, and potential solutions aren’t particularly new either.
Maryland’s Constitutional Convention of 1967 dealt with the same issues Gov. Larry Hogan’s Redistricting Reform Commission is grappling with this week: what kind of group should draw the lines, who should serve on it, what standards for the districts should they follow and even whether all the members of the House of Delegates should serve in single-member districts.
Maryland’s 1867 constitution was rewritten a hundred years later after a long-involved process by elected convention delegates much like the current General Assembly. But voters ultimately rejected the entire document which had political opposition on many fronts, including its proposal for single-member delegate districts.
Reforms passed but not on redistricting
Many of the reforms in the rejected constitution were implemented through individual constitutional amendments by Gov. Marvin Mandel, such as our current system of trial and appellate courts. However, Mandel and the legislature did not pass the bipartisan and somewhat independent Legislative Redistricting Commission the constitutional convention had proposed.
Instead, in 1972, voters approved a constitutional change giving us the redistricting system we have now. It puts the governor in charge of drawing maps which lawmakers can only reject if they come up with their own plans.
Redistricting was a hot issue in the 1960s because the U.S. Supreme Court had found Maryland’s legislative apportionment unconstitutional, particularly its allocation of senators by counties, rather than population. This change forced a major political shift in the legislature, eliminating rural dominance of a state rapidly becoming more suburban.
Five-member bipartisan commission
The Constitutional Convention proposed a five-member commission to handle redistricting for both the legislature and members of Congress.
The presiding officers of the House and Senate would each name one person, the minority leaders of each house would name a person, and the governor would name a fifth person. None of them could be elected officials.
This independent commission would draw up maps using the standards virtually identical in language to the ones in the current constitution, which says: “Each legislative district shall consist of adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.”
But the proposed 1967 constitution used the same language and standards for congressional districts as for legislative districts. That is missing in today’s state constitution, and establishing those standards is something the governor’s reform commission is hoping to accomplish.
Single member districts
A number of witnesses to the reform commission, mostly Republican legislators and citizens, have also proposed adopting single-member delegate districts as a way of protecting representation of both partisan and ethnic minorities.
Maryland is the only state that elects two-thirds of its House members in three-member districts. These districts, with campaign tickets that are formed, establish “control of a county or legislative district by a well-entrenched political organization,” said Marianne Alexander in her doctoral dissertation on the 1967 convention.
The effort to break that organizational control with single-member districts was “one of the most politically explosive issues of the convention,” Alexander writes. Both Republican Gov. Spiro Agnew and his successor, Democrat Mandel, opposed the idea, which was defended as “strengthening the two party system in Maryland as well as diminishing the domination of the organization.”
These dominant organizations certainly didn’t like this provision in the constitution. Nor did they and incumbent courthouse officials like the constitution’s elimination of elections for sheriffs, clerks of the court and register of wills. These are among the reasons contributing to the constitution’s failure at the polls.
Minority members of the current reform commission observed the lack of diversity in the 90 people who testified at five hearings, mostly white and over 55.
They certainly wouldn’t have been impressed with the composition of the 1967 Constitutional Convention, which was almost entirely older white men, pretty much the make-up of most legislative bodies at the time.
The politics of one-member districts in 1967-8 were in some respects remarkably similar to the politics today, even though in other respects they might appear completely opposite. Baltimore City politicians liked multi-member districts because they knew if single member districts were created many of them would have to compete with other incumbents, which they strongly opposed. This, of course, is also a major reason state legislators hated independent redistricting: it meant they could be placed in the same district with other incumbents. Both were recommendations of the 1967-8 convention that were on the ballot for popular ratification in 1968.
Now here is the really interesting political point: Did the politicians publicly acknowledge why they hated the proposals of the state constitutional convention, which included both single member districts and independent redistricting? No, they chose a completely different type of argument to defeat the constitution proposed by the convention. They drove around Baltimore City’s blue collar white neighborhoods with loud speakers saying that voting for the convention’s recommendations would hurt the interests of the white community. Remember that 1968 was a time of urban unrest throughout America and that liberals were perceived to have dominated the convention. It was also an era when a very large fraction of Maryland’s population still lived in Baltimore City.
Today, the real reasons Baltimore City politicians oppose single member districts and independent redistricting are very similar to what they were in 1968. But the race baiting has flipped, including the claimed racial politics of the 1967-8 convention, which is a remarkable turnaround. Reflect, for a moment, on the statement at the end of this article, which is a highly accurate statement of current public arguments being made by Baltimore City reps against one member legislative districts and independent legislative redistricting: “Minority members of the current reform commission observed the lack of diversity in the 90 people who testified at five hearings, mostly white and over 55. They certainly wouldn’t have been impressed with the composition of the 1967 Constitutional Convention, which was almost entirely older white men….” Wow! Some things never change–even when they appear to be completely flipped.
You raised a valuable point regarding the 1960s history of redistricting:
“Redistricting was a hot issue in the 1960s because the U.S. Supreme Court had found Maryland’s legislative apportionment unconstitutional, particularly its allocation of senators by counties, rather than population.”
While this Commission meets, they should be cognizant of the pending Supreme Court hearing (early December) of Evenwel v. Abott, a case that was foreshadowed by an Attorney General’s request in Maryland many years ago by then-Senator Nancy Jacobs (https://www.oag.state.md.us/Opinions/2009/94oag125.pdf). At the heart of the matter is whether the “one-person, one-vote” principle (Reynolds v. Simms) or total population should be used for state legislative redistricting?
The Commission would be wise to at least acknowledge the implications of the pending SCOTUS decision in any recommendation they put forth given some of Maryland’s gerrymandered districts have undeniably high voter-eligible/potential voter-eligible disparities.