If Rep. John Sarbanes, a Towson Democrat, wants to travel his entire district in one trip, he’s going to need a boat.
Both Cape St. Claire and Gibson Island — connected only by the Chesapeake Bay — in Anne Arundel County are part of the new Congressional 3rd District, drawn into the redistricting maps approved in October 2011.
“It’s like a person with a blindfold drew it on an Etch-a-Sketch,” Marylanders for Coherent and Fair Representation President Antonio Campbell said of District 3, which sweeps west and south from Baltimore County and city as far as Montgomery County, and south to include parts of Anne Arundel County along the Bay.
Opponents of the map — and the process that created it — are now calling for reform of the redistricting process, taking it out of the hands of elected officials, as some other states have done in the past few decades.
Led by Campbell, about 65,000 Marylanders signed a petition to bring the map to the ballot for voter approval. On Nov. 6, the map will be the subject of Question 5, which voters can support or oppose.
Opponents of the map, who come from both parties and all levels of state and local government, are hoping that the ballot question will lead to some kind of reform in the redistricting process.
“Democrats and Republicans and folks in the middle agree that this is a necessary step,” said Campbell, a Republican. “I’m thrilled we’re talking about this.”
Republicans oppose the map because it all but makes certain that District 6, represented by Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett since 1993, will go to Democratic challenger John Delaney in November. The district, which followed the northern border the length of the state, now swoops down into Democratic-heavy Montgomery County.
Adding to the opposition, a growing number of Democrats say party leaders went too far in tweaking the borders to favor the dominant party.
Montgomery County Councilman Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) calls the 3rd Congressional District “a blood splatter.” Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot said it makes “a mockery of the electoral process.”
Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Dist. 18) of Chevy Chase said the map unfairly splits up minority populations for the purpose of bolstering less-Democratic districts.
The redistricting process starts every 10 years when census data becomes available, as mandated by federal law. There are no federal rules governing how states draw up their maps, only that they do it every decade, that districts be in proportion and that they don’t discriminate against communities of interest, like racial groups.
Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), appointed a Redistricting Advisory Committee in July 2011, made up of Secretary of Appointments Jeane D. Hitchcock, House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30), Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) and former Republican Anne Arundel Del. James J. King. That committee drafted the maps and recommended them for approval by the General Assembly. The General Assembly voted to approve the map in a special session last October.
Most states have a similar form of redistricing approval, and whichever party in power at the time historically uses the opportunity to draw lines to help the party. In June, the Supreme Court approved a U.S. District Court decision that declared the map legal.
“It would take a very long and tough haul to totally reform [redistricting in Maryland],” said Greg Rabidoux of Common Cause, a nonprofit organization advocating for more accountability in government.
“The pressure is on some of these legislators to say, ‘Hey, the voters have spoken, and we need to have some kind of change.’ But it sure isn’t going to have even a glimmer of hope if it just gets approved in a pro forma kind of way.”
Other states are in the process or have recently changed how they redistrict, moving toward a nonpartisan commission.
Iowa has long been the standard for a redistricting commission less dependent on party leadership. Maps are drawn by the nonpartisan Iowa Legislative Services Bureau and approved by the legislature.
Iowa’s congressional district map is striking: Largely rectangular counties fit neatly into the four relatively compact and contiguous districts.
Such a map wouldn’t work in Maryland, said Rabidoux, because with its denser populations around urban areas and growing minority communities, Maryland has many more groupings to protect.
California instituted such a commission for the most recent round of mapping, to mixed results. Although Rabidoux said the districts are more compact — and a look at the map shows fewer appendages on some districts than in the 2002 map — there have been reports of Democrats influencing the process to get the map drawn as they wanted.
“There were some lawsuits, some challenges,” Rabidoux said of the California Congressional district map, drawn up by a 14-member citizens committee. “Whoever feels disfavored by the map is going to challenge it.”
Similarly, Arizona — in its second round of redistricting by an independent commission —faced some legal hurdles this year when Republicans filed lawsuits to redraw the maps.
“Even the fair-and-balanced-commission approach tends to lead to partisan bickering,” said Rob Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, a Takoma Park-based think tank and advocacy group for election reform.
Little can be done, Richie added, until redistricting is addressed nationwide, because what states like Maryland do can have major implications for national politics, swinging party balance in the House of Representatives.
“I’m hoping the Maryland referendum helps us have a national conversation,” he said.
During the 2012 legislative session, Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Dist 25) of Mitchellville introduced legislation to create a task force to look into redistricting reform. It got a hearing in the House Rules and Executive Nominations Committee, but died there.
“I believe there is support [for reform],” Braveboy said. “Part of the reason people are upset is not just because of the results — the maps themselves — but the process leading up to the final results.”
Although a series of hearings were held around the state looking for public input, Braveboy said that participants were shown old maps, rather than getting an opportunity to comment on a proposed map.
Braveboy plans to introduce a similar bill in the next session, even if voters approve Question 5.
“We need to have a more substantive process,” Braveboy said. “We want community interests to be more important than political interests.”