ANNAPOLIS – A bipartisan group of Maryland legislators is trying to get 10 years ahead of sure trouble — they want to revamp the process of drawing lawmakers’ districts and avert last year’s controversy.
Although the boundaries are not set to be redrawn until 2012, members of the House of Delegates are supporting a bill to establish an independent study commission on the redistricting system, with an eye toward improving it.
Last year, successful lawsuits struck down former Gov. Parris Glendening’s redistricting plan. The state’s high court presented its own map – less than three months before the primary elections.
To add to the controversy, legislators, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George’s, were reprimanded last year for contacting judges in the midst of the panel’s decision-making.
The shake-ups led to confused candidates and postponed election deadlines.
“I had to sell my house and move because of the plan that the court put out,” said Delegate Justin Ross, D-Prince George’s.
Lawmakers need to take a “dispassionate” look at the process, “while we still have memories of last year’s experience,” said bill co-sponsor Delegate John R. Leopold, R-Anne Arundel, a challenger of Glendening’s plan.
Under the bill, members from the General Assembly, gubernatorial appointees, including representatives from non-partisan groups such as the Center for Voting and Democracy and the League of Women Voters, would constitute the new commission.
Such legislation is needed because the process is now fraught with politics.
“(Presently), redistricting is a partisan tool set out to help certain people and hurt others,” Ross said.
Last year, Republicans charged that Democrats, who outnumber them more than two to one in the General Assembly, hijacked the process. With the election of the first Republican governor in more than 30 years, a commission might have more of chance at a bipartisan solution, sponsors hope.
The commission will be charged with reviewing other state redistricting methods, consulting with experts and suggesting changes in Maryland law.
“All they’re going to do is study and come out with the best system possible, which is fine with me,” said Delegate D. Page Elmore, R-Somerset.
Bill supporters are hoping a commission will help to create a redistricting process relatively free from partisanship and incumbent protection.
“It’s part of why people don’t vote,” said James Browning, executive director for Common Cause Maryland, a non-profit political watchdog group.
Browning also said the governor had too much power under Maryland’s rules.
The state constitution requires the governor to prepare a legislative districting plan every 10 years, soon after the U.S. census is published, then present the plan to the General Assembly.
Browning was eager to see the bill pass as soon as possible while the governor in the next redistricting cycle is unknown. Passing the bill before too long would help avoid political maneuvering, he said.
“As soon as we can forecast who the governor is going to be . . . politically it will be very hard to pass this,” he said.
Proponents pointed to Iowa’s redistricting process as a good model.
Iowa’s process is “non-political,” said Rob Richie, executive director for the Center for Voting and Democracy.
In Iowa, initial redistricting duties are delegated to a nonpartisan board which must develop and then submit three plans to its Legislature for final approval.
Despite the bill’s promise to improve redistricting methods and defuse potential conflict, Elmore remained skeptical.
“No matter how the redistricting is done,” said Elmore, “there are going to be some people who are not going to be pleased.”