Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission

Congressman Andy Harris gives his testimony Oct. 6, before the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission, advocating to draw legislative district lines more fairly.

EASTON — Those who spoke at the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission public hearing Oct. 6 largely supported an independent commission to tackle redistricting in the state, calling for more fair federal and state political district boundaries.

Gov. Larry Hogan in August signed an executive order that created the bipartisan commission, which aims to gather citizen and elected official input and consider creating an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw district lines in an effort to quash gerrymandering — the act of drawing political district lines in such a way as to favor one party.

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland’s lone Republican in Congress who represents the entire Eastern Shore and parts of Har-ford, Carroll and Baltimore counties, said he’s been an early proponent of redistricting reform, even when the reform doesn’t favor his re-election prospects.

Harris, who also is a former state senator, said that when Maryland’s congressional districts were redrawn in 2012, it packed Republicans into an area of one congressional district, his district.

“I should actually like when the federal redistricted, because it turned out pretty good for me,” Harris said.

He said that after the state legislative redistricting in 2002, which cut his then-state senate district down to 10 percent of what it was, he cosponsored a bill that would have established a redistricting commission. That bill didn’t get far, he said.

Harris, speaking to congressional district lines, advocated for the Shore to be included all in one district.

“In addition to jurisdictional and geographic boundaries, there should be some attention ... to keeping areas of like-issue sets together,” Harris said. “At the federal level, for instance, if we don’t keep ... predominately rural districts together, then we have a real problem across the country, because there just aren’t that many rural districts left.”

He said that in Congress there is a shrinking number of rural representatives because of a current tendency to “dilute” those rural districts, leaving residents with less representation.

“Somehow the system has to be allowed to protect the interest of an identified minority. On the Eastern Shore, it could be agricultural and rural interests. In a district, it could be a racial minority that has interest,” Harris said.

Speaking to the state legislative lines, Harris called for unified districts, in terms of single-member districts or multi-member districts, adding that the fairest thing as he sees it is for every one to have one state senator and one delegate.

“I think everyone just wants things to be as fair as possible for the average person to feel that they’re represented,” Harris said.

Those residents who spoke at the public hearing, which commission members admitted was not well attended, made similar comments, that they’re in favor of an independent commission to draw district lines for fair representation.

One Queen Anne’s County man even recommended that the state use a mathematical computer algorithm that takes into account population and issues for each area, then allow commission members to tweak the lines to a certain extent.

A common point among Shore state representatives who spoke at the public hearing was one of how large their districts are, sometimes splitting counties into two separate districts and spanning multiple counties.

Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, said House District 36 and District 37B are the only House districts with a residency rule, that there can be no more than one person elected from each particular county.

That’s because three delegates represent District 36, which covers Cecil County south to Kent, Queen Anne’s and parts of Caroline, and two delegates represent the Mid-Shore’s District 37B, which is Talbot and parts of Caroline, Dorchester and Wicomico counties.

“The issue that we have here is that our districts are, because of land base and the way our population is, are so broad,” Hershey said, adding that his Senate district represents four different counties.

Hershey said the way House Districts 36 and 37B are set up, it leaves the possibility of one county being left out of representation, making a point of Caroline County, which in the last general election got its first resident delegate in years with the election of Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36-Caroline.

He called redistricting a “hyper-partisan” issue that occurs every 10 years.

There was talk of looking to other states, which is part of the commission’s task, to see what they’re going to do on the issue, which Hershey called “frustrating to hear.”

“Maryland is first in education, brags about being first in health care, we have some energy policies that might make us first in the country in things that we do, and now to have to wait to say, ‘OK, we want to take a back seat on good governance,’ just doesn’t seem to be the right tactic,” Hershey said.

Districts lines are drawn every 10 years based on population, as per the one-man, one-vote Supreme Court decision.

Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Talbot, said what he runs into most often is his constituents being confused about which district they’re actually in and which representative they should call to address their issue.

Mautz commented on the size of his district, saying that it’s important to be accessible as a delegate to all his constituents, even though the distance from one end of the district to the other can be far.

Mautz’s comment was echoed by Ghrist, who compiled data from the Maryland Department of Planning for the commission that deals with representation by population for the state’s legislative districts.

According to the data Ghrist shared with the commission, the ideal population for a single-member district is 40,938, for a two-member district is 81,875, and for a three-member district is 112,691.

Out of the legislators in the House of Delegates, 44 Republicans and 27 Democrats represent more than the ideal population size. Likewise, six Republicans and 64 Democrats represent fewer than the ideal population size.

Ghrist said Caroline County has a population of 32,00 people, but District 36 delegates represent about 5,600 more people than what is ideal.

“I know we talked about that land really shouldn’t matter, but in essence it does when it comes down to actually representing you constituents,” Ghrist said, who lives near the bottom of District 36, which is about a 70-mile drive from his house to Elkton near the top of his district.

“I only live less than 10 miles away from people who live in the same county as I do, but I can’t represent them. Instead, I’m going to represent people who live in Cecil County 70 miles away,” he said. “For me to genuinely try to represent somebody who lives in Elkton, which is more like Harford County, it’s a real challenge. It’s not fair to them and it’s certainly not fair to us because it makes things more challenging as a legislator to be able to effectively represent those votes.”

Redistricting commission member Michael J. Goff, president and CEO of the Northeast-Midwest Institute and an advocate for redistricting reform, said he was playing devil’s advocate by asking if representatives elected from homogenous districts, like a farming or urban district, is part of reason there’s so much discord in politics, challenging a point made by both Ghrist and Harris and what he said were a number of others at previous public hearings.

“Couldn’t the argument be made ... that we’d be better with legislators who come from somewhat more diverse districts, instead of homogenous districts?” Goff said to Ghrist. “Why are you taking it as a given that a farming area should have a farming delegate, or a city area should have a city delegate? Maybe it should be mixed a little bit and maybe we would get more done.”

Ghrist said he doesn’t necessarily disagree with that sentiment, but added that he hopes over the next couple years Maryland legislators can work together no matter what type of district they come from.

The redistricting commission has one more public hearing before it starts deliberation on redistricting reform. It is due to give a report to the governor, president of the Senate and speaker of the House in November.

Follow me on Twitter @jboll_stardem.

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