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Study: Maryland has nation’s least compact congressional districts

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A new report does not call any Maryland district gerrymandered, it just says the heavily Democrat-leaning state has the nation's least compact congressional districts and focuses a spotlight on the much-maligned district map that voters will have an opportunity get rid of on Election Day.

The study, done by Pennsylvania-based software company Azavea Inc., says the Chesapeake Bay shoreline must have had some impact on the way the 3rd District was drawn, but "there is seemingly no other reason for the district to snake through various communities in three different metropolitan areas [Baltimore, Annapolis and the District] the way it does."

It dubbed the 3rd District, held by Democratic Rep. John P. Sarbanes, as the nation's third least compact.

Maryland's eight districts hop over county, municipal and geographic borders, creating several odd and twisted shapes. Critics have said the districts were drawn to favor Democrats, which control both houses of Maryland's General Assembly and 75 percent of the state's seats in the House of Delegates.

"Maryland, across the board, has low scores for all of the measures of compactness," said Daniel McGlone, a computer mapping analyst with Azavea.

While the study argues there is no one definition for the word "gerrymand," Tony Campbell, chairman of political group Repeal the Gerrymander, freely uses it. Mr. Campbell is one of the leaders of a group that successfully petitioned the map to next month's election ballot, where voters will have the chance to vote down the map drafted last year. If they do, Maryland could have to restart the redistricting process.

Mr. Campbell said the study is additional proof of what he has been fighting for and hopes that the exposure it brings will get more people to see the map.

"It feels good to have an independent group confirming what we have been saying, but it feels bad that it has gotten to this point," Mr. Campbell said. He said the 3rd District is the most egregious example of the state's gerrymandering and the type of image that should inspire people to vote against the map, which is Question 5 on the upcoming ballot. While others have compared the 3rd District to blood spatters, Mr. Campbell has his own analogy.

"It reminds me of a blindfolded person playing with an Etch A Sketch," he said.

Maryland's districts were drawn by a group appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat. His office said in an email that, "The Map is accurate, reflects population trends and the geography of Maryland and has been upheld repeatedly by the courts."

The five-member Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee was primarily made up of heavy hitters in the party, including Mr. O'Malley's appointments secretary, Jeanne Hitchcock, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, Prince George's Democrat, and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat. After several public hearings around the state, the committee drew the map. It was approved by the General Assembly in a special session last year.

Although powerful Democrats drew the map, not all Democrats support it.

Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot is the most prominent Democrat to come out against it, though he said there are many other party members who silently share his sentiment.

"The map is a travesty," Mr. Franchot said. "It tries to fix the election in advance for Democrats using bare-knuckle politics that are completely unnecessary. It makes a mockery of the state of Maryland around the country to have the most gerrymandered districts."

The Azavea study looks at the compactness of the nation's congressional districts through four common measurements, three of which ranked Maryland as the most spread out.

According to Azavea's study of the districts used after the 2000 census, Maryland had the nation's least compact districts then, too. Mr. McGlone said the state's districts are getting worse in terms of compactness.

"The districts got less compact, but the state's outline stayed the same," Mr. McGlone said.

This map already has faced legal scrutiny, withstanding a court challenge where a citizen's group claimed that it broke up too many minority communities.

Even so, those who oppose the map think that voters who take a good look at it will vote it down — even though a vote against the map is a vote for the same type of heavily Democratic group to go through the same process to redraw the districts.

Both Mr. Franchot and Mr. Campbell are hopeful that legislation will be passed in the 2013 General Assembly session to overhaul the state's redistricting process. They both said that the only way that redistricting can be fair is if a nonpartisan citizens' commission is in charge of drawing district lines. Similar legislation was proposed during this year's regular General Assembly session but died in committee.

Azavea also has studied the difference between politician and citizen redistricting, and Mr. McGlone said that independent commissions tend to draw more compact districts.

Mr. Franchot put it more bluntly.

"A citizens' commission is the only way we will be free from smoke-filled back room Tammany Hall-style stupid politics," he said.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author

Megan Poinski

Megan Poinski is the former deputy metro editor at The Washington Times. She has worked as a reporter, editor and web designer for more than a decade, covering mostly local, state and federal government in Ohio, Maryland and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Throughout her career, she has received reporting awards from the Scripps Howard Foundation, Capitolbeat, and Associated Press Managing ...

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