Can we take the politics out of Howard County Council redistricting?

6 minute read

This is my fourth post in Dividing Howard week on my blog, as I discuss some topics related to my new book on the history of council council redistricting in Howard County, Maryland, and the broader events of Howard County politics from 1960 on. Previous posts discussed the role of Columbia in spurring creation of a county council, the struggles of Howard County Republicans under the council district system, and the problems with gerrymandering of council districts. In today’s post I discuss whether it’s possible to avoid gerrymandering by making redistricting a nonpartisan affair.

Drawing district lines, whether of council districts or congressional districts, is one of those mundane political processes that tend to get people excited only when something particularly egregious happens—for example, the 2003 redistricting controversy in Texas, when (among other things) Democratic members of the Texas legislature actually fled the state in order to deny Republicans a quorum to pass a redistricting plan for Texas’s congressional districts. The usual solution proposed at such times is to “take the politics out of redistricting,” for example by having it be done by an independent and ostensibly nonpartisan commission.

Iowa was a leader in this regard, having established by law in 1980 a special agency (the Legislative Services Bureau, now part of the Legislative Services Agency) to handle redistricting of Iowa congressional and state legislative districts. The process has run fairly smoothly since then, with the state legislature approving the plans as a matter of course (sometimes after one or two revisions); the LSA completed the 2011 redistricting process in less than three months, with the final plan enacted almost unanimously.1

More recently in two separate referendums (in 2008 and 2010) the voters of California voted to have an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission draw up district lines for California legislative and U.S. congressional districts. The commission members are chosen randomly from a pool of people determined to have the necessary qualifications, with five slots reserved for Democrats, five for Republicans, and four for independents or members of other parties. Unlike Iowa, the commission itself makes the final decision on district lines, not the state legislature.

As described in chapter 19 of Dividing Howard, Howard County uses a separate redistricting commission to draw council district lines. The members of the commission are nominated by the two main parties’ Central Committees; no independents or members of other parties need apply. (A third party could gain representation, but it would have to attract at least 25% of the vote in the county executive race.) The county council then appoints the commission’s chair to provide a “tie-breaker” vote, so that in practice the work of the commission is controlled by whatever party has a majority on the county council; the council also has the opportunity to modify the redistricting plan proposed by the commission. (This happened in the last round of redistricting, and may happen in this one as well.)

Thus the Howard County redistricting commission doesn’t have the independence and nonpartisan nature that advocates of redistricting reform typically call for. The commission seems to have instead been created mainly as a way to avoid having the county council be involved in the detailed work of creating redistricting plans, while still ensuring that the party with a majority on the council retained control over the outcome.

Making the Howard County redistricting commission more independent (e.g., along the lines of the California commission) would require a change to the Howard County charter, and there doesn’t seem to be any real support at present for making such a change. In the meantime another possible approach is enabling more public participation in the redistricting process, either as part of the formal redistricting process or as part of a separate unofficial initiative.

As described in chapter 7 of Dividing Howard, when the district system was first adopted in Howard County the League of Women Voters encouraged members of the general public to try their own hand at coming up with a district plan, publishing a pamphlet containing the rules for redistricting and the precinct population data needed as input to the process. That effort apparently didn’t have any real impact; beyond the limited public interest in the fine details of redistricting, the process of creating districts is complicated enough that it would be unlikely that a typical citizen would be able to come up with a usable plan that satisfied the various legal criteria (compactness, contiguity, etc.) without some sort of assistance.

However recent years have seen growing interest in and work toward creating redistricting applications that can be used by non-experts; these are typically based on geographic information system (GIS) applications with additional software to implement redistricting algorithms of various levels of sophistication. For example, ESRI, the vendor of the most popular family of GIS applications, partnered with Los Angeles County to create the Public Access Plan site to allow residents to create and submit their own plans.

Other organizations and even individuals have produced open source software that allows anyone to run a redistricting application for their own use or for use by the general public. The most notable of such projects is the Public Mapping Project, which has created the open source District Builder software. I actually played around with District Builder a fair bit to see if I could get it working, but ran into enough issues that I had to give it up. For those with more money than time the GIS vendor Azavea (whose developers helped create District Builder) offers implementation services; Azavea also sponsors the informative Redistricting the Nation site.2

However ultimately the attempts to create “citizen maps” will come to naught unless they receive institutional backing from those who actually have some measure of official input into the process. In a local context, Howard County Republicans seem to have approached this round of redistricting pretty much as they did the last time, like a football team that always runs it up the middle. It would have been interesting to see the Howard County GOP change their game plan somewhat and go with an approach that explicitly incorporated public input and participation.

For example, why not put local Republican redistricting experts to work creating a Howard County equivalent of the Los Angeles public access site, have the League of Women Voters or some other nonpartisan group sponsor it, and commit in advance to present as the Republican plan whatever came out of that public process? In the absence of a council majority the end result would have likely been the same, but the Howard County GOP I think would have been in a better position to lobby against district changes it didn’t like and to gain public support for future changes to improve its position in the redistricting game.

Or maybe the better thing, not just for Howard County Republicans but for Howard County as a whole, would just be to abandon the council district system entirely, and go back to electing council members at large. I’ll have more to say on that in my next post.

In the meantime I encourage you to check out Dividing Howard if you haven’t already; it’s only $2.99 from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and all royalties go to the local charity Voices for Children, which recruits and trains volunteer advocates to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in Howard County courts.


  1. See the Legislative Guide to Redistricting in Iowa for more information on the history and operation of the Iowa redistricting process.

  2. For examples of individual efforts to create redistricting plans and software see the Redistricting Now and B-Districting blogs and the Dave’s Redistricting site. News articles on the phenomenon include “The rise of do-it-yourself redistricting” (Stateline), “There Comes a Time When People Just Have to Set Boundaries” (Wall Street Journal), and “Technology allows citizens to be part of redistricting process” (USA Today).