Maryland voters to get shot at reversing redistricting

Unofficial tally shows enough signatures to put issue on ballot

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Maryland voters are getting the chance in November to get rid of the new congressional district map, marking the first time in 50 years that a referendum on redistricting has made it to the state ballot.

At the close of business on Wednesday, the state’s Board of Elections had an unofficial tally of 56,342 signatures on the petition to put the map up for a vote - 600 signatures more than needed, and that doesn’t count the roughly 2,000 signatures yet to be verified.

Only 23 states have the option of getting an issue on a ballot by getting a certain number of signatures - called a popular referendum - explained Jennie Bowser, a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“I’ve never seen a popular referendum for redistricting before this year,” she said, referencing data that went as far back as 1998.

This fall, voters in both Maryland and California voters will be casting ballots on newly drawn district maps. Ms. Bowser said that the window is still open for some other states to put redistricting issues up for a vote.

There aren’t often citizen-sponsored referenda on state ballots at all. Not counting Maryland redistricting, Ms. Bowser said, there are 11 referenda nationwide this fall that have been petitioned to the ballot. Before this year, the largest amount Ms. Bowser had seen is seven.

“It’s sort of this backlash,” Ms. Bowser said. “It’s the pendulum swinging. The pendulum swung one way in 2010, where we saw a lot of majority changes. The pendulum is now swinging back a little bit the other way.”

The new congressional map, passed in October, drew ire from Republicans who saw the reorganization as a way for Democrats to clinch the win in the 6th District. Minority voters also claimed the map’s lines were drawn to break up racial groups. Members of the Fannie Lou Hamer political action committee challenged the map in federal court, and the map was upheld.

In Maryland’s history, the last time a petition like this changed a map was in 1962, said Delegate Neil C. Parrott, an organizer of this current petition.

The Maryland League of Women Voters put the map on the ballot and voters rejected the drawing. It was redrawn three years later.

“The whole point of this partisan redistricting process is to remove voters from the process, to create a situation really where parties are picking their constituents,” said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “If you can then challenge that by petition and overthrow the map, you’re basically saying ‘we will have our say.’ Not every state allows you do to that, and the fact it can happen in Maryland is very significant.”

In Maryland, the eight congressional districts must have equal populations, and districts should avoid jumping across county lines and bodies of water. Unlike state legislative districts, there is no requirement that Maryland’s congressional districts be compact and contiguous.

Mr. Parrott, a Washington Republican, called it “quite possibly the most gerrymandered in the country.”

And there is research to back up that claim.

Philadelphia-based Azavea, a geospatial analysis firm, compared Maryland’s new map to the rest of the country in terms of compactness.

Compared to the 0.228 average for all U.S. districts, Maryland came in at 0.081.

“The governor has given us a lemon of a map,” Mr. Parrott said. “You can’t really get any worse than this map.”

Michael McDonald, co-project leader of the Public Mapping Project and an associate professor at George Mason University said what was curious about the referendum was that at its heart, “it tells you the amount of money [Republicans] are willing to invest in trying to change the outcome of one congressional district, and even then it’s not a guarantee,” he said. “In the end, I think it’s a sign of the times how flush with cash the parties are.”

Looking to November, Mr. Parrott acknowledged that the petition was “not an emotional issue but it’s a logical issue,” a fact not lost on the redistricting experts.

“The map itself is such a detail-oriented thing and redistricting is not an issue people are thinking about,” said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst for NCSL. “Your average people going to work every day, they care a lot about police, schools, health care, street lights; very tangible, real things. The things they do in Annapolis like redistricting, are a step removed from people’s everyday lives.”

Mr. McDonald said the referendum process wasn’t the best method of reform, and saw it more as “an unending game of passing a new map, referendum, passing a new map, referendum.”

But the uncommon quality of the referendum could have far-reaching effects, he said.

“If this succeeds, if Marylanders reject this map, it may just be that tipping point necessary to bring about national reform.”

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