Maryland lawmakers will have dueling congressional maps before them when they convene for a special session on redistricting Monday, including a proposal that could enable Democrats to pick up a seat and sweep all eight Maryland U.S. House seats and a very different map proposed by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
While Democrats who control the General Assembly have the veto-proof majority to approve the proposal backed by its leadership, it won't happen quietly under Hogan, a rare Republican who happens to be in office in heavily Democratic Maryland during a redistricting year.
The special session, which is expected to last about a week, is taking place as the GOP only needs a net gain of five seats to take control of the U.S. House.
Politicians across the U.S. this year have been gerrymandering — drawing districts that either pack voters of the opposing party into a few districts or split them among multiple ones to dilute their influence. Republicans have done so in such states as North Carolina and Texas, and Democrats have done it in Illinois and Oregon.
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A Maryland commission of six lawmakers that included House Speaker Adrienne Jones and Senate President Bill Ferguson, who are both Democrats, voted 4-2 along party lines last month for a map supporters say is an improvement on the state’s current map — which has been criticized and challenged in court for its sprawling districts.
“Throughout the entire process, it was clear that Marylanders think their representation can be improved with more compact and easily followed districts," Jones and Ferguson said in a joint statement.
Still, all eight districts would have more registered Democrats than Republicans under the proposal.
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It makes the district held by the state’s lone Republican U.S House member, Rep. Andy Harris, more competitive by adding registered Democrats in the 1st Congressional District, which includes the Eastern Shore and is now strongly Republican under the current map. The proposed map would bring some of Harris’ district across the Chesapeake Bay into Anne Arundel County, and it would lean to Democrats' advantage in the number of registered voters.
Hogan is proposing a separate map drawn by a panel of citizen appointees, rather than politicians. The commission appointed by the governor had nine members, including three Democrats, three Republicans and three Independents.
“I was hopeful that the General Assembly leadership would follow Governor Hogan’s lead with a citizen-led nonpartisan redistricting process," Harris, who is seeking his seventh term, said in a statement. "Instead, we may have districts stretching from the Susquehanna River to Montgomery County that are called shared communities of interest. I’m glad that at least the Eastern Shore was kept intact.”
Democrat Heather Mizeur, who is running to challenge Harris, is a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates who has raised more than a $1 million for her campaign. She also has the endorsement of the district's former Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest.
“We’re running a big-tent coalition campaign where we have Republicans, Independents and Democrats alike that are supporting our effort," Mizeur said in a recent interview. "It’s just helpful for our district to get more to a competitive place.”
In a state where Democrats outnumber GOP voters 2-1, Democrats now hold a 7-1 advantage over Republicans in Maryland's U.S. House delegation. It had been 6-2, before redistricting a decade ago added Democrats to the state's western Maryland district, resulting in the defeat of Republican incumbent Rep. Roscoe Bartlett.
The map supported by Hogan would largely restore those two districts on the eastern and western sides of the state.
Opponents of the map proposed by the legislature's commission say it could be challenged in court, if it's approved.
Del. Neil Parrott, a western Maryland Republican who is running for Congress, led a petition drive that gave voters a chance to reject the congressional map in a 2012 statewide vote. Voters ended up supporting the map, but Parrott is not ruling out another petition drive.
Hogan has supported overall redistricting reform, while contending the state's congressional map should better reflect Maryland voters.
“I think their intent is to continue to do some of the worst gerrymandering in the country, and we’re trying to convince them that that does not make sense and that they should follow the citizens’ redistricting commission," Hogan said Wednesday, after a meeting with Ferguson. "But it’s good that we’re having dialogue, and it was a very open and honest free-flowing discussion.”
The governor points out that the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the map proposed by his commission an “A” grade, while it gave maps proposed by the legislature's commission a failing grade, based on partisan fairness and competitiveness.
“This map did get an ‘F’ on our analysis, because it really would be poised to heavily favor the Democrats across the state," said Helen Brewer, a legal analyst for the initiative, which does nonpartisan analysis of maps at a state-by-state level.
Mileah Kromer, director the Sarah T. Hughes Center for Politics at Goucher College, said voters have consistently expressed in polls a preference for political boundaries to be drawn by an independent commission, instead of politicians. However, voters in a heavily Democratic state also consider the overall national context, she said.
“The political reality is that we live in a really high-polarized society right now, and Democrats aren’t interested in ceding seats to Republicans, especially now,” Kromer said.