For a long time before the 2014 election, Frederick County residents voted for five county commissioners every four years (and for a while before that, for three), who collectively served as both the executive and legislative branches of county government. In Frederick County, all five commissioners were elected at-large. In other words, they ran countywide, and their electoral district was set by unchanging county boundary lines.
Starting with the 2014 election, all that changed.
Two years earlier, in 2012, Frederick County voted to make the switch from the commissioner form of government to charter government. Among the many changes that the new charter brought to the county was the possibility of partisan, political gerrymandering.
The structure for charter government in Frederick County wasn’t something that was simply pulled off a shelf in Annapolis, and presented to the voters here for consideration. Our charter — the Frederick County charter — was drafted by an appointed Frederick County Charter Board, which met for months, reviewed other Maryland county charters, consulted with experts, and ultimately discussed, debated and decided on many different elements where Maryland law provided a spectrum of options.
I attended or watched virtually every meeting. Among the many issues that had to be resolved and decisions that had to be made, I remember interesting discussions, for instance, about the balance of authority between the executive and council, how many council members to establish, should the role of council member be full time or part time, how much council members should be paid, and whether they should all be elected at-large, or all represent separate districts, or a combination of both. There were lengthy discussions about details such as whether to have five or seven or nine council members, and whether one or two or three should be at-large members, etc.
In the end, as we all know now, they decided that the charter they would send to the voters would have seven council members, with two at-large members and five that were elected by individual districts.
Once they made that decision, they had to draw a map of the five new districts. The charter writing commission came up and considered different proposals for the map, before settling on the one we have today. That map was added to the charter and was approved by the voters when the overall charter was approved (on November 6, 2012)
Here is that map of our five current county council districts:
You can open or download that map and/or the maps for individual districts at these links:
The boundaries for the new council districts are part of the county charter, but, because the population of the county shifts and grows (more in some areas than others) the district lines need to be re-evaluated after the new census every ten years, and redrawn as necessary to continue to meet the basic requirement that the districts be “substantially equal in population.”
That requirement meant that the charter writing board also had to establish a process for redistricting (or redrawing the new boundaries of some or all council districts) every ten years. (Please note that that process can only be changed through a charter amendment, which requires support from county voters.)
Here is the specific language in the county charter about how that is supposed to happen:
In my view, the initial language that was proposed by the charter writing board really opened the door to partisan gerrymandering. Along with others, in both parties, I made the case for changes that would, at least, provide some safeguards and reduce the opportunity or probability of partisan gerrymandering.
The charter writing board did respond to the concerns and ideas expressed by making some changes, and I was glad about that. But the changes definitely did not eliminate the opportunity for or possibility of partisan gerrymandering if there was a majority of the county council that wanted to do that.
Here is a definition of gerrymanding from Encyclopædia Britannica:
Gerrymandering, in U.S. politics, the practice of drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage over its rivals (political or partisan gerrymandering) or that dilutes the voting power of members of ethnic or linguistic minority groups (racial gerrymandering). The term is derived from the name of Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, whose administration enacted a law in 1812 defining new state senatorial districts. The law consolidated the Federalist Party vote in a few districts and thus gave disproportionate representation to Democratic-Republicans. The outline of one of these districts was thought to resemble a salamander. A satirical cartoon by Elkanah Tisdale that appeared in the Boston Gazette graphically transformed the districts into a fabulous animal, “The Gerry-mander,” fixing the term in the popular imagination.
So, anyway, using any process they choose themselves, the Frederick County Democratic Central Committee and the Frederick County Republican Central Committee will each select three people to be on the nine-member Redistricting Commission. The Frederick County Council will, also through a process determined by the council itself, select the other three members of the Redistricting Commission. The council must choose three county residents and registered voters who are unaffiliated with any political party for at least two years prior to the date of appointment.”
I have a high level of confidence that this particular county council will identify and select the three members in a fair manner, with the full intention to appoint individuals who will be fair and impartial, and who will make every effort to support a new district map that is not gerrymandered to favor one party or the other in a way that does not accurately reflect the overall county.
But it is important to remember that a highly partisan council majority (this time or in future redistricting) could draw a map that gave one party or the other a significant advantage in three or four of the five districts. There is nothing in the charter or state law to prevent it.
There is a great deal of information available out there about gerrymandering, if you are inclined to look more deeply at the general subject. But here is a simplified graphic that shows how, for this example, a 40% minority could gerrymander a district map to have an advantage in three (or 60%) of the districts.
THE UPCOMING PROCESS
As noted above, the Frederick County Democratic Central Committee and the Frederick County Republican Central Committee will each select three people to be on the nine-member Redistricting Commission. They will do so applying any process they choose themselves. If you are a county resident and registered Democrat or Republican interested in being considered for the commission, please contact the appropriate party central committee.
Friday, March 5, 2021 is the deadline to submit Redistricting Commission applications if you are unaffiliated with any political party for at least two years prior to the date of appointment, and are interested in one of the other three seats on the commission.
On Tuesday, March 9, at the county council workshop (beginning at 5:30 pm), there will be a presentation by County Attorney about the Redistricting Commission, as well as a county council discussion about the rules and process.
On Tuesday, March 23, at the county council workshop (beginning at 5:30 pm) the council will select and appoint the three Unaffiliated voter members, and accept the six members selected by the respective party central committees.
On Tuesday, March 30, at the county council workshop (beginning at 5:30 pm), the county council will vote on the Redistricting Commission Resolution.
The newly seated commission will be able to start meeting shortly thereafter, and they can gather a variety of information and discuss various issues, but they will not be able to begin drawing boundary lines and maps until after the 2020 Census numbers are available. The timing of that has been delayed due to concerns of the Biden administration about ways in which the Trump administration was compiling the data differently than had been done in the past.
If all goes as expected, they will receive that data, and be able to begin looking at various scenarios by early or mid summer.
And then, as described in the charter: “By November 15 of the year following each decennial census date, the Commission shall present to the Council a plan of Council Districts, together with a report explaining it. Within thirty days of receiving the plan of the Commission, the Council shall hold a public hearing on the plan. If within ninety days after submission of the plan no other legislation reestablishing the boundaries of the Council Districts has been enacted, the plan as submitted shall become law.”
SOME BASIC THINGS TO KNOW (in no particular order)
• The current district lines are a starting point. But there is nothing in the law or the charter that makes it necessary to use them as the basis for new districts. In other words, the commission could try to tweak the existing maps, moving some precincts from one district to another in response to population changes, but they don’t have to do that, and they could start from scratch to create five new and substantially different districts.
• Council members are required by the charter to “be a resident of the district for at least one year prior to election or appointment.” It is entirely legal, and somewhat possible, for the boundaries of a district to change in a way that means an incumbent running for re-election would not be eligible to run in the same district (which could be largely the same as before or substantially different).
• That also means that some people who may be considering running for the county council will not know what the district boundaries will be for a while. Technically, that could be as late as mid-February of 2022 (less than five months before the primary), though it is likely (but not assured, depending) that the final boundaries could be established roughly four to eight weeks, or more, before then.
• When the original charter writing board had to develop the first district boundaries (that we have now), the county had a plurality of registered Republicans. That was the primary consideration or factor in the final decision to create three council districts that had a plurality of Republican voters. Today the county has a plurality of registered Democrats. How will that fact affect the thinking and decision making process of the commission, or, for that matter, of the county council?
• The county council is included in that last question because, because of this, in the charter:
(b) By November 15 of the year following each decennial census date, the Commission shall present to the Council a plan of Council Districts, together with a report explaining it. Within thirty days of receiving the plan of the Commission, the Council shall hold a public hearing on the plan. If within ninety days after submission of the plan no other legislation reestablishing the boundaries of the Council Districts has been enacted, the plan as submitted shall become law.
Essentially, what this says is that if, after a public hearing, a majority of the county council objects to the map as presented by the commission, the county council (or, to be precise, any four-member majority of the council) has up to sixty days to develop and approve a different map. That map could be a tweak of the one provided by the commission or an entirely new and different map.
• The charter requires that “Any Council District established in accordance with this section shall be compact, contiguous, substantially equal in population, and have common interests as a result of geography, occupation, history, or existing political boundaries.” BUT…and this is significant…none of those variables are specifically defined, and a long history of other redistricting processes (elsewhere) and legal challenges has made it clear that those “requirements” are more soft guidelines than strict or legal mandates.
Personally, I find gerrymandering abhorrent. I think it has been done…by both major parties…to the increasing detriment of fair elections and good government.
I say “detriment” for more reasons than I will not dive into here and now, but, if you are interested, here is a piece I wrote about gerrymandering almost twenty years ago:
I will also note that, over time, with experience and, very notably, much more granular data and increasingly sophisticated computing, gerrymandering has become both more common and more extreme…and, in my view, more insidious.
So, I encourage you to pay attention, to appreciate the potential issues and problems that exist in the process of drawing new district boundaries. And in closing, I encourage you to support a party-blind, fair and impartial redistricting process for Frederick County this year, and, perhaps, when the time comes, a charter amendment to make sure that a future council can not and will not gerrymander Frederick County!