By MICHAELLE BOND
WASHINGTON (December 14, 2010) It could drastically alter election results and affect who runs for public office.
No, it's not voting or a scandal. It's redistricting.
And the practice that occurs after each decennial census is getting a few updates in Maryland this time around. A state law passed in April will change how prisoners are counted in political districts, and technology not widely available during last decade's redistricting process will increase chances for public participation.
For the first time, Maryland, along with New York and Delaware, will use prisoners' last known addresses, instead of their prison's addresses, to determine congressional and legislative district populations and redraw the state's political map.
"It'll be an interesting process to watch and see if they're successful," said James Whitehorne, assistant chief of the Census Bureau's Redistricting Data Office. "I do think it will be difficult to do."
For months, Maryland has been tracking down prisoners' addresses, complying with a state law that ended the practice of counting prisoners, who can't vote, as part of the prison districts' populations. Before the No Representation Without Population Act, this practice inflated the voting power of the prison districts, while deflating those of the prisoners' home districts.
There are two main complications associated with this new law, said Andrew Ratner, Maryland Department of Planning spokesman.
Inmates' addresses are sometimes difficult to verify, especially because some didn't have fixed addresses before their incarceration, Ratner said. And the state has to figure out the number of Maryland prisoners as of April 1—Census Day—not the current number.
"You couldn't have really prepared for it," he said, "because the law passed after the census."
After every census, all states are responsible for using the new population data to redraw their political maps—congressional and legislative districts and voting precincts—to more accurately represent residents and achieve population equality in the districts. But the process is also driven by politics.
Redrawing the districts—and therefore regrouping the voters—can affect who gets elected in the state. Members of the state General Assembly have the chance to help their political parties by grouping like-minded voters together in the same district.
Although the Census Bureau won't release the 2010 population data used for redistricting until February and March, it is now releasing geographical data—like updates on city and county boundaries—to help states prepare for redistricting.
In a few weeks, the Maryland Department of Planning will establish a page on its website to answer residents' questions and give an overview and preliminary timeline for the process, Ratner said.
Residents can also express their concerns and suggestions for the state's redistricting plan through the website.
"There are ways to keep people informed that just weren't available back during the 2000 census," Ratner said. "It's a whole new ball game."
The department will also use Twitter and Facebook to keep Maryland residents up to date on the redistricting plans' progress.
Gov. Martin O'Malley is likely to appoint a redistricting advisory committee, which will hold public hearings next spring and summer, Ratner said.
A special legislative session may be called in early September 2011 to finish mapping congressional districts, which must be complete well before the February 2012 congressional primary, Ratner said. The Maryland State Board of Elections will then make any needed adjustments before the election.
The legislative district plan must be finished by January 2012 and the General Assembly will adopt it by late February 2012, Ratner said.
"The problem is that most people, from the citizens' perspective, don't really understand how important this is," said Fred Hejazi, chief executive officer at Citygate GIS LLC, an Annapolis-based company that sells redistricting software. "The effect is pretty substantial and it lasts for a decade or more."
Redistricting software is also less expensive than in previous years, so Hejazi and census workers anticipate more plans from citizens and companies. Hejazi hopes this helps dispel misperceptions about redistricting.
"A lot of people think of it as something sinister that happens behind closed doors," he said. But that's not the case, he said.
Redistricting plans are just like any other piece of legislation, he said. "Some people come out ahead and some come out behind," Hejazi said. "It depends on who's in charge."
Karl Aro, executive director of the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, said he can't speculate about possible changes to Maryland's districts until the census numbers come out, but residents along the border of Maryland can rest assured that their districts will not change.
"Basically, in my experience, districts have cores that don't really get disrupted too much," said Aro, who has been through the redistricting process four times.
Western Maryland will always be the 6th Congressional District and the Eastern Shore will always be in the 1st Congressional District, he said. When remaking political districts, legislators generally work from the outside of the state in toward the center.