The Maryland Senate quickly passed an alternate congressional map Tuesday, after a judge last week struck down Democrats’ initial plan as “extreme partisan gerrymandering” that diluted GOP votes.
Republicans said the new map does more of the same.
The latest map, which includes significantly more compact districts, would only take effect if Anne Arundel County Senior Judge Lynne A. Battaglia’s ruling stands. The proposal appears to preserve Democrats’ 7-1 congressional advantage in the state, while reversing the previous map’s dramatic changes to the 1st District seat, held by Rep. Andy Harris (R), to make it more competitive.
Republicans said they had no input in the new map, which passed on a 30-13 party-line vote. The public was given 12 hours’ notice to sign up to testify at Tuesday’s 8:30 a.m. hearing, despite pleas from good-government groups to allow more of a role for voters.
“The public is clearly shut out from this process, so I’m very disappointed,” said Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County), one of the plaintiffs who sued the state over the original map. “This seems to be in direct violation of openness and transparency.”
“It’s patently obvious what we’re doing here,” Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) said. “ … It’s a little nicer. It’s a little better looking than the last one. But the outcome will essentially be the same.”
Battaglia became the first judge in state history to rule that a congressional redistricting map had violated the state constitution. She threw out a map that Democrats passed last December, ruling that its districts were not compact and disrespected political subdivisions. Those rules have traditionally only been applied to state legislative districts. But Battaglia said she found no reason in the law not to apply them to congressional districts, too, and urged the General Assembly to redraw a map that complies with the constitution within five days.
Battaglia will assess whether the new one meets those requirements at a Friday hearing. Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) has until Wednesday night to appeal her ruling and has not said yet whether he plans to.
It is unclear whether Gov. Larry Hogan (R) would sign off on the alternate map. Hogan pushed for lawmakers to adopt the boundaries drawn by his citizen advisory committee, but General Assembly leaders declined.
The legal battle has high stakes for Maryland Democrats, who initially redrew districts in a way that would make the seat held by Harris, the state’s lone congressional Republican, more competitive. The fate of one seat could have repercussions nationally, with Democrats clinging to a narrow majority in the House ahead of this year’s midterms.
The alternate map no longer uses the Bay Bridge to connect the Republican stronghold of the Eastern Shore to the sizable sliver of largely Democratic voters near Annapolis. Instead, it extends the northern part of the 1st District west into Harford County to pick up more Republican voters.
Should the new map be used in the November election, it would likely lead to a Republican victory in the 1st District in the fall and Democratic victories in the rest, said Dave Wasserman, a redistricting analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“It’s a lot prettier than the map that Democrats passed in 2011 and most recently [last] year, but it’s up to courts to decide whether it’s fair,” Wasserman said. “It is the most visually compact way Democrat can hope to keep all seven of their current seats. For Democrats, this is about preventing the worst-case scenario, which is that they would actually lose seats in Maryland.”
During a joint hearing of House and Senate panels Tuesday morning, Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City) deflected questions from Republicans about who exactly drew the new map. Ferguson said staffers were rushing over the weekend to implement “a new interpretation” of the laws governing congressional districts. He said the map was built “using the same methods that we use for the creation of the state map.”
“The timeline before us was one imposed by the courts, and so I think we’re all trying to do the best that we can to make sure we comply with the court order as expeditiously as possible,” he said.
Some Republicans called the map an imperfect improvement over December’s — Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) called it “far superior” — but said they did not believe it went far enough to undo partisan gerrymandering.
Democrats defended the sprawling boundaries, noting the judge told them to make districts compact and to follow geographical and political boundaries as much as possible. Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) said Maryland’s unique geography and uneven population distribution made that difficult.
“We’re not a nice box, or something very symmetrical,” Kelley said. “And since the human beings living in any of our counties are not equally spread out in the space that constitutes the county, what we are talking about are ideals that may be [great] in a geometry class but have nothing to do with where the human beings are.”
Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Washington), one of the Republican plaintiffs and a congressional candidate in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, said he believes this new map does make the 6th more winnable for a Republican. But he said he would be voting against the map once it heads to the House, echoing the concerns of his colleagues and saying that he prefers Hogan’s citizens’ commission map, which would likely have returned the 6th to Republican hands.
Battaglia “very clearly said, ‘I’m giving you another chance to draw something that’s fair for Maryland voters,’ and unfortunately they just haven’t,” Parrott said in an interview. “It’s very disappointing, and I think the judge will be disappointed as well.”
Wasserman said he still considered Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) the favorite in Maryland’s 6th District under the alternate map, though he said the district would not be as solid for Democrats as it has been over the past decade.
Under the alternate map, President Biden would have won the district by roughly 10 percentage points in 2020; under the map Battaglia rejected, Biden would have won it by nearly 23 points. Wasserman noted that demographic changes within the I-270 corridor have made areas such as Gaithersburg, Germantown and Frederick bluer over the last decade, making it possible “for Democrats to draw a clean-looking 6th District that would still reelect Trone.”
“What Democrats have done here is add all of rural Frederick County to the 6th but continue to exclude Carroll County and include Gaithersburg and Germantown, and by so doing, keep Trone in a double-digit Biden seat,” Wasserman said.
A House panel advanced the alternate map Tuesday evening.