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.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/file
California Citizens Redistricting Commission member Vincent Barabba, left, watches as Secretary of State Debra Bowen certifies one of the new legislative and congressional maps in Sacramento, Calif., Aug. 15, 2011. Op-ed contributor Douglas Johnson writes: '...only Arizona and California have redistricting commissions that are both independently selected and have independent control of redistricting.'

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.

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.

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.

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 commonground@csmonitor.com.

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