Nonpartisan redistricting? Reform efforts meet reality.

In the 10 years since the nation’s congressional and state legislative maps were last redrawn, a record-breaking number of states passed ballot measures intended to make the process more bipartisan and transparent.

But, with the map-drawing process now in progress, it is becoming a bumpy ride.

Why This

Was Written

Some new commissions are made up average citizens and struggle to overcome partisanship while they redefine legislative lines in the states and Congress. Reformers may need to reconsider the entire process, according to some.

In Virginia the initial attempt at creating “fair” maps failed last week. It appears that the case will be heard by the Supreme Court. Similar events are taking place in New York. Democrats and Republicans have come together with separate maps .. Ohio’s new commission failed to gain bipartisan approval for its state legislative maps, which will now only be in place for four years rather than 10. The U.S. House of Representatives is at stake, with Democrats holding an eight-seat majority. Redistricting commissions that are meant to help the partisan cause of election fraud and other issues have been weakened, raising doubts about how it is possible to draw lines both sides consider fair.

“[The process] is a feeling that people feel.” Michael Li, a Brennan Center redistricting expert says. They are finding it difficult to take off their partisan hats .”

in this very partisan age.

Washington

Redistricting should look very different in this year’s edition.

In the 10 years since the nation’s congressional and state legislative maps were last redrawn, a record-breaking number of states passed ballot measures intended to make the process more bipartisan and transparent. Reform advocates hailed the citizen-led effort as a victory for American democracy. It was a signal that both sides wanted to stop partisan gerrymandering (drawing lines to gain political advantage)

But, with map-drawing underway, reforms are facing a bumpy road.

Why This

Was Written

Some new commissions are made up average citizens and struggle to overcome partisanship while they redefine legislative lines in the states and Congress. Reformers may need to reconsider the entire process, according to some.

The first attempt at drawing a fair legislative map in Virginia fell apart last week. Now, it appears that the case will be heard by the Supreme Court. The state’s new bipartisan redistricting commission – which was created in 2020 with support from two-thirds of Virginia voters – has been dogged by partisanship from the outset, with Democrats and Republicans working with separate consultants to produce separate maps and so far failing to merge them.

A similar process is playing out in New York, where 58% of voters approved a measure in 2014 to create a bipartisan redistricting commission, and the commission’s Democrats and the Republicans have also come up with separate maps, not yet agreeing on a compromise.

And in Ohio, where nearly three-quarters of voters approved a 2018 ballot measure to end partisan gerrymandering, a new redistricting commission failed to gain the required bipartisan approval for its state legislative maps. As a result, those maps will now only be in place for four years, including national elections in 2022 and 2024, rather than 10.

While the process is still ongoing, it’s clear that the stakes are high. This can be illustrated by the fact that many states have been struggling to pass reforms that received broad support from voters. With Democrats holding an eight-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, even subtle tweaking of lines in key states could determine control in 2022 and beyond. Independent redistricting committees are under attack by the very partisan forces that they were supposed to alleviate. This raises an important question: Can it be done in a fair way to draw districts? is a feeling that people feel.” Michael Li, an expert in redistricting with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program says “It feels very existential to them.” They are finding it difficult to take off their partisan hats .”

in this very partisan age.

SOURCE: The Brennan Center, All About Redistricting, and The National Conference of State Legislature

Karen Norris/Staff

Under a microscope

According to a 2017 Brennan Center study, extreme gerrymandering in a handful of states during the 2010 redistricting process likely netted Republicans 16 to 17 additional seats in the U.S. House.

This is not a new concept. Since the beginning of our republic, district-drawing was used for political gain. In fact, the term for it – gerrymandering – is named after one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Experts say that Americans pay more attention today.

” Ten years ago the process was more opaque. Adam Podowitz Thomas, senior legal advisor at Princeton Gerrymander Project, says that the maps were created, approved, and you then felt like “Oh, I guess this was my new district.” “These entities are under a microscope like they haven’t been before.”

According to one recent poll, more than two-thirds of Americans are at least familiar with the term gerrymandering. Majorities of both parties would prefer that congressional districts were drawn without partisan bias, even though it would mean their party wouldn’t win as many. This explains why there have been seven ballot measures passed by citizens to tackle the issue in recent years. In fact, the number of states implementing reforms could have been as high as 12, but a measure passed in Missouri in 2018 was overturned in 2020, and four states – Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Oregon – had their required signature gathering hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic also delayed the U.S. census, which in turn has drastically delayed the redistricting process. Only four states have yet to finalize new maps. Many states are fast approaching the deadlines for primary or constitutional elections.

Experts believe it is too soon to assess the effectiveness of the redistricting committees.

” The jury is still out,” said David Wasserman (redistricting expert, senior editor, Cook Political Report) at an event at Duke University in September. The learning curve is steep for citizen commissioners. It sounds easy, maybe, to draw a map, but the technical requirements actually are quite strenuous.”

“What if we made every line less important?”

Mr. Wasserman is referring to four states that are using, for the first time, commissions made up of nonpoliticians to draw and implement new congressional and legislative maps – Arizona, California, Colorado, and Michigan.

Both Michigan and Colorado put their redistricting in the hands of 12- to 13-person citizens’ commissions made up of Republican, Democratic, and independent voters.

In Michigan, the new commission of randomly selected novices approved 10 draft maps on Monday to take to the public for hearings beginning next week. The new maps, which will likely undergo revisions, may not make either side particularly happy – they undo gerrymandering put in place by the GOP legislature 10 years ago, and also eliminate some majority-Black districts – but reform advocates remain hopeful.

“Michigan’s redistricting hasn’t been without its hiccups, but it’s going remarkably well,” says Connie Cook, a retired political science professor and volunteer with Voters Not Politicians, an organization that spearheaded the ballot initiative to reform redistricting in 2018. She notes that the commissioners have not taken a single vote along party lines in the 13 months they’ve been meeting.

The “steep learning curve”, which Mr. Wasserman mentioned along with the delay in the census, have both hindered the ability of the Colorado and Michigan commissions to meet voters’ expectations. Michigan’s commission had to cancel several public hearings to allow more time to create its maps, and Colorado’s plan for five months of deliberation was condensed into two. The maps for Colorado, now complete and waiting to be verified by the state Supreme Court. This would protect seven state incumbents while also creating a competitive new district.

Experts agree that even the best efforts to redistricting reform will fail.

Voters approved the reforms to ensure fairness and greater representation. However, David Daley (author of “Unrigged”: How Americans are Battling back to Save Democracy), argues that there are other ways to do this, such as multimember districts.

In such a system, the U.S. House would still have 435 members, and seats would still be apportioned to states based on population. However, the way states allocate their representatives will change.

Instead of nine districts in Congress, Massachusetts, which is home to Mr. Daley, could only have three large districts and nine legislators. They would also use ranked-choice vote to elect officials. While fewer districts could limit opportunities for gerrymandering, ranked-choice would permit representation of voters from a minor party. For example, Massachusetts has nearly half a million Republicans, while nine of the members of Congress are Democrats.

” As long as every [district]line is important, politicians will find ways to exploit every loophole,” Mr. Daley says. “So, what if we made every line less important?”

As citizens watch their independent commissions fall short, they should be inspired to think bigger, he argues. He says that reformers must learn from this experience. “Commissions, as reforms, need to be reforming .”

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