Nonpartisan redistricting? Reform efforts meet reality.

Julie Carr Smyth/AP
Areeqe Hammad testifies at the first public hearing of the Ohio Redistricting Commission at Cleveland State University Aug. 23, 2021. A new voter-approved commission that was supposed to reduce partisanship in the process of political map-drawing has devolved into partisan finger-pointing.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

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 map-drawing now underway, the rubber of those reforms is meeting a very bumpy road. 

Why We Wrote This

New commissions, some made up of average citizens, are struggling to overcome partisanship as they redraw congressional and state legislative lines. Some say reformers need to rethink the whole process.

In Virginia, the first attempt to create “fair” maps collapsed last week and appears headed for the state Supreme Court. A similar process is playing out in New York, where Democrats and Republicans on a new redistricting commission have come up 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.  

At stake is control of the U.S. House of Representatives, where Democrats hold an eight-seat majority. And as redistricting commissions are undermined by the same partisan forces they’re meant to alleviate, it’s raising questions about whether it’s even possible to draw lines that both sides perceive as fair.

“[The process] feels really existential to people,” says Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center. “In our very partisan age, they are having a hard time taking off their partisan hats.”

Redistricting was supposed to look different this year. 

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. The citizen-led efforts were cheered by reform advocates as a win for American democracy, a sign that voters from both parties wanted to end partisan gerrymandering, or the drawing of lines for political advantage. 

But with map-drawing now underway, the rubber of those reforms is meeting a very bumpy road. 

Why We Wrote This

New commissions, some made up of average citizens, are struggling to overcome partisanship as they redraw congressional and state legislative lines. Some say reformers need to rethink the whole process.

In Virginia, the first attempt to draw a “fair” legislative map collapsed in acrimony last week and now appears headed for the state 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 remains ongoing, the fact that so many states are struggling to enact reforms that drew broad support from voters underscores the stakes involved. 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. That independent redistricting commissions are being undermined by the same partisan forces they’re supposed to be alleviating raises a troubling question: Is it even possible to redraw districts in a way that would be perceived by both sides as fair?

“[The process] feels really existential to people,” says Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “In our very partisan age, they are having a hard time taking off their partisan hats.”

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.

In many ways, this is nothing new: district-drawing has been abused for partisan gain since the early days of the republic. In fact, the term for it – gerrymandering – is named after one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. 

One difference today, say experts, is that more Americans are paying attention.

“Ten years ago, the process just occurred in more of a black box. The maps were produced, passed, and then you were like, ‘Oh I guess this is my new district,’” says Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal adviser at the Princeton Gerrymander Project. “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. And majorities in both parties say they would prefer congressional districts be drawn with “no partisan bias,” even if that meant their own party would not win as many seats. 

That explains the flurry of citizen-led reforms in recent years, with seven states passing ballot measures to address the problem. 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. So far, only four states have finalized new maps, with many states fast coming up on constitutional or primary election deadlines. 

For this reason, some experts say it’s too early to evaluate the success of the new redistricting commissions. 

“The jury’s still out,” says David Wasserman, a redistricting expert and senior editor of the Cook Political Report, at a conference at Duke University in late September. “There is a steep learning curve 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.

Still, that “steep learning curve” that Mr. Wasserman mentioned, along with the census delay, has in some ways already hampered both the Michigan and Colorado commissions’ ability to live up to 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. Colorado’s maps, which are completed and awaiting verification by the state Supreme Court, would largely protect the state’s seven incumbent representatives, while creating a new, competitive district. 

To some experts, even the most successful efforts at redistricting reform will inevitably still fall short. 

Voters approved these reforms in pursuit of fairness and better representation, says David Daley, author of the book “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.” He argues there are better ways to achieve that – 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. But how states allocated their representatives would change.

Instead of nine congressional districts, for example, Mr. Daley’s home state of Massachusetts could have nine lawmakers representing just three big districts, and use ranked-choice voting to select officials. Fewer districts would limit the opportunities to gerrymander, while ranked-choice voting would allow representation for voters of a minority party. There are almost half a million registered Republicans in Massachusetts, for example, but all nine members of Congress are Democrats.

“As long as each [district] line is so important, politicians are going to find a way to exploit every possible loophole,” says Mr. Daley. “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. “Reformers have to learn the valuable lessons of this cycle,” he says, “which is that commissions as a reform need reforming.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

 

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.