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Common Ground, Common Good

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.

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Arizona was the first state to try this approach in 2001, and found considerable success. The commission agreed unanimously on a congressional redistricting plan that more accurately reflected the population (as a result, Latino representation in Congress increased). The commission reunited geographic communities that had been previously carved up. It also created one of the most competitive redistricting plans in the nation.

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When Arizona’s voters moved toward the Democrats in 2006 and 2008, more Democrats were elected. When Arizona voters moved toward Republicans in 2010, more Republicans were elected to Congress. This common-sense connection between changing voter preferences and changing elected officials is unfortunately rare in gerrymandered states.

The most vibrant work on redistricting reform is taking place at the local level – and spreading. San Diego and Modesto, Calif., have both successfully completed two rounds of city council redistricting by independent commission. Austin, Texas; Escondido, Calif., and San Diego County all recently adopted independent redistricting commissions. Los Angeles and San Francisco, while lacking independent commissions, have at least put redistricting in the hands of bipartisan public commissions. Reformers aiming for state-level change can hope that as local officials elected from such districts rise to state legislative and congressional offices, they may be more open to reform proposals than current state officeholders.

Independent commissions, however, can also struggle with redistricting. Arizona’s commission, and, to a lesser extent, the one in California, have stumbled over seemingly partisan decisions on which experts to hire and where to draw the lines.

These experiences indicate that commissions should therefore reject (or be barred from) drawing their own lines. Instead they should review and select among plans submitted to them by the public. When the public is given the right tools, the experiences of Arizona, San Diego, and Ohio have shown that individuals and community organizations will respond with cohesive plans. Open interaction between the commission and the public is the best road to a plan that focuses on communities and voters, not incumbents.

Gerrymandering is a historic problem that is difficult and time consuming to counter. And while redistricting reform may ease the stalemate in Washington, it will not end it. The causes of stalemate are much more complicated than gerrymandering alone.

But ongoing reform efforts at the state and local level prove that change is possible, and should encourage Americans. Redistricting by independent commissions working with the public can create a Congress that reflects, and changes with, the views of American voters.

Douglas Johnson is a fellow with the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College and president of the National Demographics Corporation. He served as chief technical consultant to the Arizona redistricting commission in 2001 and has consulted on the redistricting of more than 100 cities, counties, school districts, and other local jurisdictions. The opinions here are those of the author alone.

Readers: This is one of a new series by guest writers who offer ways to soften many of the polarizing debates over issues that sharply divide people. Are you working with others who don’t share your views in order to solve a problem in your community or beyond? E-mail us about it at


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