When Democrat Kweisi Mfume won Tuesday’s special primary election to represent Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, he became the presumptive winner of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings’ seat — even though there’s also a Republican nominee for the seat and less than a fifth of the district’s voters cast a ballot. Political analysts say that’s in part because Maryland’s congressional districts are designed to give Democrats an outsized advantage.
Creating a nonpartisan process for drawing the districts has been a priority for Gov. Larry Hogan since early on in his first term, but his continued calls for action appear likely to be ignored for yet another legislative session.
Hogan has introduced a version of the same redistricting proposal every legislative session since 2016, but the bills have never gotten to the House or Senate floor. During his State of the State address on Wednesday, Hogan urged lawmakers to change that this year.
“You have a chance to do the right thing, to strike a win for democracy, fairness, and decency by finally, after five years, bringing the nonpartisan redistricting bill to the floor of this body for an up or down vote,” he said.
Hogan’s latest proposal would amend the state constitution to create an independent commission that would draw the districts. The districts would also have to meet certain criteria. They would need to be compact, and could not be drawn to account for residents’ political leanings.
But after Hogan’s speech, Senate President Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said unfairly drawn districts is an issue that needs to be handled nationally or regionally. He said the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill doing that, but the U.S. Senate hasn’t taken it up.
“That’s the best way for us to deal with this American democratic crisis,” Ferguson told reporters. “The bottom line is Maryland can’t solve this problem alone.”
That was the prevailing sentiment Thursday when Hogan’s proposal got a hearing before the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Committee Chair Paul Pinsky, a Prince George’s County Democrat, reminded the room that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Maryland’s districts to stand in a ruling last year.
“The greatest abuses across the country of all 50 states have been with Republican Party that have shut out and clustered minorities, clustered the other party,” Pinsky said.
He pointed to North Carolina and Texas as examples of states where Republicans have gerrymandered Democrats out of contention.
“Given that the Supreme Court punted, why should Maryland be first in line?” Pinsky asked. “Should we wait for North Carolina or Texas or another state of our size?”
It’s widely accepted that Maryland has some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country. The 3rd Congressional District was famously compared to a “broken-winged pterodactyl” laying across the map.
Advocates for changing Maryland’s process told lawmakers on Thursday that these districts demoralize voters.
When asked about the issue in public opinion polls, Maryland residents consistently say they support nonpartisan redistricting.
“I think it’s a larger question of fairness, that people do want to have their elections to be fair,” said Mileah Kromer, who oversees the Goucher Poll. The poll last asked about redistricting in 2017. “But it's also, in a case like Maryland, when anybody who has even the slightest interest or understanding of politics can look at our district maps and see that something is amiss.”
Some Democratic lawmakers have offered a counter-proposal that would require Maryland to act if Virginia agreed to similar redistricting reform.
Virginia’s General Assembly is also considering legislation that would leave the creation of districts to an independent commission. But it’s not clear whether that measure will succeed before that state’s legislature adjourns in a month.