To his credit, Gov. Larry Hogan recently took the step of creating an independent nine-member state redistricting commission to redraw Maryland’s state and federal legislative districts.
Much of the attention has been rightly focused on Congressional redistricting where according to a 2014 article in the Washington Post, Maryland is tied with North Carolina as having most gerrymandered districts in the country. Unfortunately, the picture is not much better with the way that our state legislative districts have been drawn despite receiving almost no attention.
Fortunately, Section 4 of the Maryland Constitution requires state legislative districts to be “compact in form” and “due regard” given to natural and political boundaries which in turn limits the gerrymandering of state legislative districts.
It doesn’t mean that gerrymandering does not exist, but that it is harder to justify on a wide scale.
District 42 in Baltimore County, which stretches from the Baltimore City limits north all the way to the Pennsylvania border — despite being only a couple miles wide — is a prime example of state legislative gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering was used by Gov. Martin O’Malley — and previous governors — to reward legislative allies while punishing his detractors.
Having previously worked as a legislative staff member to two former rural Democrats in the House of Delegates, I witnessed firsthand how he allowed some legislators to draw their own district boundaries and thus pick their constituents based upon historic voting patterns. Despite the admiration I have for my past employers, this practice is wrong plain and simple.
An independent redistricting commission would go a long way to solving this problem.
However, the issue that has received the least coverage is in fact related to the apportionment rather than gerrymandering of legislative districts, i.e. the variation in the number of citizens that a district includes.
The Maryland Constitution requires that state legislative districts be “substantially equal in population,” which is very vague.
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gaffney v. Cummings, and subsequent cases, that state legislative districts could vary in population by up to 10%, which in that instance allowed district lines to respect township boundaries in Connecticut. This flexibility offered to states by the courts has been hijacked here in Maryland by Gov. Parris Glendenning in 2002 and Gov. O’Malley in 2012 to apportion state legislative seats for blatant partisan purposes and regional favoritism.
The existing 2012 redistricting plan, based upon the 2010 census, has a maximum variation of 9.41% in the population of state legislative districts, but that tells only a small part of the story.
When state legislative districts are mapped and color-coded based upon their percent deviation from the ideal — mean average — district size, you realize that the legislative districts in Baltimore City and the inner ring suburbs in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore counties are all over-represented while those legislative districts on the Eastern Shore, in Southern Maryland and the rural/exurban areas of central Maryland are all under-represented.
At casual glance, the reasoning as to why some suburban districts are overrepresented while others are underrepresented may seem arbitrary. However, those with knowledge of Maryland’s political geography would instantly recognize that, with only a couple of exceptions, the most Democratic and liberal-leaning suburbs are over-represented while moderate and conservative suburban districts are under-represented.
In essence, how ZIP codes and precincts vote in statewide and federal elections are a near exact predictor as to how over- or underrepresented their state legislative district is.
One would reasonably expect that the population of most legislative districts be within a percentage point or so of the ideal or mean average size, but again this is shamefully not the case in Maryland.
Nearly half of all legislative districts — 33 out of 67 total — are at least 4% over-represented or 4% under-represented, while only 10 of 67 are within 1% of the ideal or mean district size.
The most overrepresented districts are represented by 55 Democrats and one Republican, and the latter district in Cumberland was represented by a Democrat until 2015. The most underrepresented districts are represented by 33 Republicans — 75% of their total — and 25 Democrats, primarily in moderate to conservative districts.
So, what does this mean in practice?
In Baltimore City, a state delegate represents an average of 39,166 persons while delegates in my home legislative district on the Shore represent an average of 42,806 persons.
This average difference of 3,640 persons doesn’t seem like a lot until you realize that half of the legislative districts in the state vary in population by roughly this amount. When you add it all up, you would realize that Baltimore City and the more liberal-leaning suburbs are overrepresented by approximately three delegates and one state senator, while the Shore, Southern Maryland and the more moderate to conservative suburbs/exurbs are under-represented by the same number.
This may seem inconsequential to some, but this can make the difference of having a veto-proof majority or not.
In the end, it comes down to basic fairness. I’m not asking for conservative and rural districts like mine to be overrepresented but am merely asking for this blatant political favoritism to cease.
Former House Speakers Clayton Mitchell and Casper Taylor were huge proponents of “One Maryland” — that all communities across the state whether urban, suburban or rural were deserving of a fair shake from their state government.
It is time that we get back to that.
Jeremy J. Rothwell writes from Massey.