HB 1217


HB 1217 Task Force to Study Redistricting in Maryland

POSITION: Strongly Support

BY:  Susan Cochran, President

DATE: March 10, 2014

The League of Women Voters of Maryland strongly supports HB 1217, which would establish a Task Force to Study Redistricting in Maryland.  We commend Delegate Braveboy for introducing this bill again this session, and for her continued support for an educational process that will allow Maryland legislators and citizens to learn ways in which our state can create a fair, transparent, efficient and citizen-supported redistricting process.  We encourage this Committee to support this effort also, through positive action on this legislation.

In 2004, the League of Women Voters of Maryland completed a two-year study of the redistricting process in Maryland as it compares to redistricting processes in other states of the country.  We learned during our study that redistricting standards, laws, constitutional requirements, procedures and opportunities for public participation are different in every state.  In various states, the authority for redistricting rests with a government agency (Iowa), the governor (only Maryland), committees of legislatures, or redistricting commissions which are mandatory or advisory and which have different appointing authorities, qualification for membership and roles in the process.  This League study brought to light redistricting processes in other states which appear to be more fair, more efficient, and less politically divisive than the redistricting process in Maryland.  Most importantly, other states’ processes produce results that conform with reasonable and rational redistricting criteria established by constitution or statute, better than our state’s process. 

As a result of the study, League members adopted a position in support of a redistricting process and standards that promote fair and effective representation and one that provides maximum opportunity for public scrutiny.  The position adopts substantially equal population, geographic contiguity and geographic compactness as the standards on which a redistricting plan should be based for legislative and congressional redistricting.  Our position professes a preference for an independent redistricting commission as the redistricting body, with final approval of the plans by the General Assembly, but the League is prepared to support any reforms of the redistricting process in our state to achieve fair and effective representation.

The League’s current position on redistricting supports equitable legislative and congressional reapportionment and redistricting based on standards of compactness, contiguousness and equal population.  The two most recent rounds of redistricting in Maryland have not met even these basic standards.  The current redistricting process in Maryland is inadequate and too easily abused for partisan advantage. As you will recall, the 2000 legislative redistricting plan was rejected by the Court of Appeals, and the Court drew its own plan, with technical support provided by the Department of Legislative Services.  In 2011, this legislative body adopted a Congressional redistricting plan that was labeled “outrageously unconstitutional” by a former Supreme Court Justice.  A three-judge federal court opined that the redistricting plan was not unconstitutional because the U.S. Supreme Court has failed to adequately address the issue of partisan gerrymandering.  Nevertheless, the Court stated that the “shapes of several of the districts in the State Plan are unusually odd. Many obvious communities of interest are divided” and that “other districts combine citizens with widely divergent interests.”

Surely we can do better.  We can learn from reform efforts in other states, borrowing those features that would best meet Maryland’s needs.  It is time for study and public discussion about this basic political process which so greatly affects citizens and legislators.  Voters who used to be aware of redistricting as a once a decade annoyance have now come to recognize that the uncivil political discourse of our time is a direct result of the line-drawing done every ten years by the powerful of the moment.

HB 1217 requires the proposed Study Commission to submit its findings to the Governor and General Assembly by December 2015.  This time frame allows legislators and voters time, prior to the next redistricting scheduled for 2020, for serious discussion about and consideration of potential changes to Maryland’s Constitution which could result in a voter approved redistricting process that promotes fair and effective representation in the legislature and the House of Representatives with a maximum opportunity for public scrutiny.

Redistricting is a complicated process, and it will always be a political process.  But there is much to be learned from studying the laws and experiences of other states.  Experts and experienced redistricting participants are available to report on constitutional and legal requirements and to impart information about positive redistricting experiences as well as the deficient outcomes of poor redistricting practices.   We urge members of this Committee to vote in favor of HB 1217, which would enable a State Commission to conduct a study similar to that recently conducted by the League.  The League would be honored to have a representative serve on the Commission, and believe the product of our recent study could enhance the Commission’s work.