Let the public help draw voting districts
No state has yet found a perfect solution to gerrymandering – the partisan drawing of voting districts that favors parties and incumbents. But reform efforts in states and cities point to an answer: independent redistricting commissions that rely on public input for drawing maps.
One factor contributing to polarizing politics in Washington is the widespread partisan gerrymandering of America's voting districts. Many people, on both sides of the aisle, think one way to break the stalemate is to find a solution to gerrymandering – the drawing of district boundaries that heavily favor one party and keep incumbents safe.Skip to next paragraph
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Redistricting to create more representative voting areas and greater competition among candidates is a noble goal. Voters should choose their lawmakers, instead of lawmakers choosing their voters. Done right, redistricting reform can help produce a Congress that will be more responsive to voters. But the road to that goal is long and requires persistence on the part of interested voters and lawmakers.
Redistricting abuse goes back to the very first session of Congress, when then-Virginia Gov. Patrick Henry attempted to gerrymander future President James Madison out of a seat. Thankfully Governor Henry’s attempt failed, and Congressman Madison went on to guide the Bill of Rights to passage. Today, in the era of fast computers, sophisticated software, and massive databases, gerrymandering politicians can guarantee their party a decade of election victories (districts are redrawn every 10 years, after each national Census).
No state has found a perfect solution to gerrymandering – yet. But interest is building, and reform efforts in several states – and especially at the local level – are showing what works, and what doesn’t.
New York and a handful of other states have taken a step that, at first glance, seems like a good idea: creating citizen advisory commissions to take the partisan edge off redistricting decisions and to collect public input on where district lines should be drawn. But legislators still retain control in these states, and advisory commissions have proven to be ineffective guardians against partisan gerrymandering
For example, New York’s Democratic-controlled State Assembly and Republican-controlled State Senate – which receive, but can ignore, the advisory commission’s recommendations – have repeatedly carved up the state into gerrymandered districts that protect the two parties. This leaves the State Senate under Republican control and the General Assembly under Democratic control. Incumbents of both parties win, while voters lose.
In Idaho and seven other states, leaders of the legislature or state parties appoint a bipartisan commission that has the power to draw district maps. These maps are not subject to review by the legislature. Typically, such plans are less extreme in their gerrymandering compared to plans drawn directly by legislators. But these commissioners typically remain loyal to the partisans who appointed them, and the usual results are gerrymanders that protect incumbents of both parties.
At the state level, only Arizona and California have redistricting commissions that are both independently selected and have independent control of redistricting – thanks to voters, who approved these reforms through ballot initiatives backed by bipartisan coalitions.
In Arizona, the historically nonpartisan Commission on Appellate Court Appointments screens applicants for the redistricting commission to ensure they have no financial or other conflicts of interest and no connections to state legislators or members of Congress. In California the previously obscure office of State Auditor oversees a similar selection process. In both states, the commissions control their own budgets and hire their own staff. They control where district lines are drawn, not the legislatures.