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Redistricting: Slicing Up The Political Pie

John Lee
Towson Historic Courthouse, Baltimore County's seat of government.

Maryland and its localities are about to get politically carved up. For the first time in a decade, state and local officials will be redrawing the lines that determine the districts of congressmen, legislators and councilmembers.

Debates over political influence and fairness for minority voters lie ahead.

Minorities make up about 40% of Baltimore County’s population, but six of its seven council members are white. The 4th district on the west side is the county’s only majority minority district. According to census data, Blacks, Asians and Latinos make up about 80% of the district’s population.

Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown Branch of the NAACP, said the 4th district can afford to lose some minority voters. He said lines can be redrawn to increase minority representation in adjoining districts.

Coleman said, “Even if it’s not a minority-majority district, the more minority votes in a district, the better it is because then those people can hold their council person accountable.”

Coleman wants the county council to rework its district lines so minority candidates would have a better shot of winning more seats.

But Council Chairman Julian Jones, who represents the 4th district and is the council’s only African American, said he doesn’t want to lose any part of his district.

Jones said, “Not to say that may not have to happen based on the population. I’m not ready to cut loose any part of my district.”

The county council appointed a commission to study redistricting and submit a proposal. At a recent meeting, Jones and commission member Robert Latshaw said Blacks living outside the 4th district are in scattered pockets throughout the rest of the county.

According to Latshaw, it’s “almost impossible to be able to group them into a particular district.”

Coleman, with the NAACP, disagrees.

“Just looking at the map, this is a very doable thing,” Coleman said. “This is a very feasible thing.”

Debates like that over redistricting will be playing out in coming months in council chambers across Maryland, as well as in the statehouse in Annapolis.

Democrats in the General Assembly will be drawing the political lines for Congress and the legislature. They were roundly criticized for gerrymandering during the last state redistricting 10 years ago.

For instance, Democrat Martin O’Malley, who was governor at the time, admitted years later the lines were drawn to put more Democrats in the sixth congressional district to get rid of a Republican incumbent.

Republican State Senator Chris West, who represents central Baltimore County, knows he is an easy redistricting target. West lives close to the line that separates his district from Democratic State Senator Shelly Hettleman.

“Three doors away from the line,” West said. “To move me into a different legislative district would be nothing more than a little slip of the pen.”

West then would be part of Hettleman’s district and would have to run against her.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in January appointed a nine-person independent commission equally divided between Democrats, Republicans and Independents to come up with non-partisan state redistricting maps. It cannot consider things like where a politician lives and how people have voted in the past.

State planning secretary Robert McCord said he expects independent commissions like Maryland’s will become more popular nationwide as people get tired of district lines being drawn behind closed doors.

“And people seem to become more dissatisfied with elected officials picking their voters as opposed to voters trying to pick elected officials,” McCord said.

But the legislature can choose to ignore the redistricting commission’s work. State Senate President Bill Ferguson declined requests for comment. State Democratic leaders have said they favor a national fix to gerrymandering.

Redistricting happens every ten years and is tied to population data in the decennial census. Those results, usually delivered in the spring, were delayed by the pandemic and are not expected until the end of September.

That puts Baltimore County’s redistricting commission in a bind because it’s required by the charter to deliver its proposed district maps to the council by October 15. Council Chair Jones said every attempt will be made to follow the charter.

“But if we cannot follow the charter, to me it’s not the end of the world,” Jones said. “And if you can’t do it, you can’t do it.”

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2