Hogan’s Latest Redistricting Gambit: A 9-Member Commission

January 12, 2021

By: Josh Kurtz

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Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) listens to retired federal judge Alexander Williams Jr. during a State House news conference Tuesday on redistricting reform. Photo by Jack Andrucyk/Executive Office of the Governor.

Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has launched his latest attempt to bring nonpartisan redistricting to Maryland, announcing Tuesday that he has signed an executive order creating a commission to make recommendations for the congressional and legislative maps that he will submit to the General Assembly ahead of the 2022 election.

For five legislative sessions, Hogan attempted to pass a bill that would take the task of drawing legislative and congressional boundaries away from the governor and the legislature and into the hands of an independent, nonpartisan commission — but was always rebuffed by the Democratic legislature. He also has weighed in supporting high-profile lawsuits that went to the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the contours of Maryland’s 6th congressional district, which were changed significantly following the last round of redistricting in 2011.

The new proposal for a nonpartisan commission — which would serve in an advisory role — looks like the old ones in some ways, and is even being led by two people who were an integral part of Hogan’s reform push in the past: retired federal judge Alexander Williams, and Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies in Washington, D.C. They, along with Howard Community College President Kathleen Hetherington, will head a new nine-person commission that will travel the state over the next several months, taking testimony about Marylanders’ preferences for congressional and legislative boundaries before making recommendations to the governor.

“We have a duty to do all we can to restore trust and fairness to our political system,” Hogan said at a State House news conference.

Hogan has long been critical of Democratic-led gerrymandering in Maryland. As recently as 2002, the state’s delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives was split 4-4. But following a round of redistricting after the 2000 Census, Democrats’ advantage went to 6-2. Following the 2010 Census, in the 2012 election, the Democrats’ edge in the congressional delegation went to 7-1, which is where it stands now.

Democrats hold a roughly 2-1 edge in voter registration in the state.

“Nowhere has gerrymandering been allowed to run more rampant than here in the state of Maryland,” Hogan said.

But gerrymandering at the congressional level is a time-honored practice around the country, and has only gotten worse as mapping software becomes more sophisticated. For every Maryland, where Democrats have had iron-fisted control over the redistricting process, there are stunning examples of partisan redistricting in states where Republicans have held sway, like North Carolina, Texas, Florida and Michigan — something Hogan has only acknowledged in the latter years of his crusade to change the process at home.

Lower court decisions over the last few years have blunted the impact of gerrymandering in a few states to a degree. But when the Maryland challenge came before the Supreme Court in 2018 and again in 2019, justices, while critical of the 6th District boundaries, were reluctant to set a standard for how gerrymandering can be defined.

With results from the 2020 Census due to be released in several weeks, and the latest round of redistricting rapidly approaching, Hogan is hoping his latest gambit will carry extra political muscle. And he appears to have tied his  announcement to fears about the strength of American democracy following the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Trump last week.

Under Hogan’s proposal, the Maryland Citizens Redistricting Commission will have a total of nine members — three Republicans, three Democrats, and three nonaffiliated voters. The remaining six members will be selected by the co-chairs — Williams is a Democrat, Olson is a Republican and Hetherington is an independent — from applications directly submitted by citizens. Applications are due by Feb. 11 and can be found at governor.maryland.gov/redistricting. People who work in politics or for elected officials or political parties will not be considered.

“This time, we want to make sure it’s the citizens of Maryland who are drawing the lines, not the political bosses,” Hogan said.

This will be the first time in six decades that Maryland will go through redistricting with a governor of one party and a legislature of another. But regardless of what kind of boundaries the new commission recommends — and what kind of proposals Hogan submits to the General Assembly — legislative Democrats will have plenty of say in the process.

In Maryland, the legislature votes on congressional maps — so any proposal from the governor would be subject to the whims of Democratic lawmakers. For legislative maps, the governor submits a proposal during a legislative session and the legislature has 45 days to change it. If lawmakers don’t make changes to the map, the governor’s plan automatically becomes law.

Hogan, as governor, is entitled to veto maps that come out of the legislature, but the legislature is entitled to override any vetoes. The fate of Maryland’s congressional and legislative boundaries could wind up in the courts.

Hogan’s proposal was applauded by two political watchdog groups, Common Cause Maryland and the Maryland chapter of the League of Women Voters.

“While the gold standard is an independent commission, we support the Governor’s Maryland Citizen Redistricting Commission because its process begins with public hearings and produces a map without input from elected officials,”  said Beth Hufnagel, redistricting team leader for the LWV.

Without addressing the substance of the proposal, some Democrats criticized Hogan for raising the issue of redistricting at this particular point in time.

“I am just astonished that — in the middle of some of the national crises and state crises that we’re dealing with — that Gov. Hogan is having a press conference on redistricting, and bringing up a political issue,” said state Sen. Cheryl C. Kagan (D-Montgomery), vice chair of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over election issues.

Kagan added that it was “totally tone-deaf and irresponsible.”

In a statement released Tuesday evening, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) expressed some of the same sentiments.

“This session isn’t about political theatrics, and we hope the Governor will join us in focusing on the priorities of Marylanders,” he said in the statement.

Ferguson also endorsed a national political reform bill, sponsored by Maryland Congressman John P. Sarbanes (D), which among other things make redistricting a nonpartisan process in all 50 states.

“With full Democratic control of the three federal branches of government, we have a unique opportunity to make changes and create fairness nationwide,” he said.

Bruce DePuyt contributed to this report.