Maryland Dems Keep Redistricting Process Hidden From Public

Democratic Senate president Bill Ferguson in July said transparency was 'essential'

Baltimore inner harbor / Getty Images
October 19, 2021

The top Democrat in Maryland's legislature has called for transparency in the redistricting process, but his fellow Democrats have kept their plans for new district lines in the state under wraps.

The Democratic president of Maryland’s state Senate, Bill Ferguson, said during a July radio interview it is "essential" for redistricting commissions to publish draft maps in order to receive feedback from the public during the process. The redistricting commission, appointed by Democrats in the legislature, says it will do no such thing—the first draft proposal for the state's new district lines won't be published until before the last of the commission's 12 public hearings take place.

Karl Aro, the chair of the General Assembly’s Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission, said in October that he will have draft proposals for the state’s eight congressional districts made public by Nov. 15. The last chance for the public to weigh in on the redistricting process will be Nov. 18.

These plans contradict Ferguson’s assurance during the July interview that maps would be put out in September. "We will be putting forward maps when we have the data after September to get feedback from Marylanders," said Ferguson, who directly appointed Aro to lead the commission. "It's really essential that people have something to respond to as opposed to just showing up at a commission meeting to hear things."

States across the country reassess district lines every 10 years after the federal census is completed, allowing the party in power to carve the state in politically advantageous fashion. National Democrats have worked to position themselves as opposed to partisan gerrymandering, but in states such as Illinois and Oregon, Democrat-controlled legislatures are poised to pass new maps designed to disenfranchise Republican voters. In Illinois, where Republicans comprise roughly 40 percent of the electorate, Democrats have designed a map that will likely result in control of at least 14 of the state's 17 congressional districts.

Historically, Maryland Democrats gerrymander as much as anyone else. Former Democratic governor Martin O'Malley, who presided over the state's 2010 redistricting process, admitted in 2018 that the map was designed to eliminate a Republican district. "Within legal and constitutional limits, we drew a map that elected an additional Democratic House member to our delegation," he wrote in a USA Today op-ed, saying he regretted the partisan power play.

Currently, Maryland is viewed as one of the most gerrymandered states in America. Many of its districts, like the Rorschach blot-shaped Third District, slice and dice counties to ensure Democrats win easily.

Republican governor Larry Hogan has formed a bipartisan redistricting commission that has proposed a map that divides Maryland into eight districts based on county lines, but the commission can only put forward a proposal. It's up to Maryland's Democratic-controlled legislature to determine which map is accepted.

Maryland Democrats are expected to propose a map that would eliminate Maryland’s only Republican member of Congress, but they face an uphill battle in the court of public opinion. Liberal groups in the state, like Common Cause Maryland, have criticized the commission for hosting meetings during work hours without presenting the proposed maps.

Ferguson did not respond to a request for comment about whether he would support the maps from Hogan's commission, which did meet his criteria of public meetings. The bipartisan commission has already hosted over 30 public meetings across the state, has posted its maps for public comment, and has had thousands of Marylanders’ feedback incorporated into the process.

Hogan has criticized national Democrats for their hypocrisy when it comes to Maryland. Former Obama administration attorney general Eric Holder, who chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has advocated for "citizens or nonpartisan commissions to draw electoral lines so neither party benefits." He has remained silent on Democratic plans to gerrymander Maryland, in spite of calls from Hogan to endorse his bipartisan redistricting plan.

Holder’s NDRC did not respond to a request for comment about whether it will support Hogan’s plan to fairly redistrict Maryland.