End Partisan Redistricting by 2020


Redistricting_20120229_interimCD35map2 With all eyes on 2016, the election in 2020 is arguably a bigger political event. In four years the presidential contest will coincide with the election of state legislatures who control the next round of redistricting – drawing new lines for Congress and themselves.

While we brace for another partisan battle, it’s not too early or too late to ask the question – why do partisan elected officials get to draw their own districts? How is it that incumbent legislators get to choose their voters before voters choose them?

It’s hard to imagine our founders envisioned a permanent system wherein, if one party controls both state legislative bodies and governorship, they can rig the system in their favor. Or, if the two major parties split power, they collude to gerrymander districts safe for themselves and less competitive for opponents.

Indeed as modern targeting technology has made redistricting a partisan science, there has been a steady drop in Congressional seats where the outcome is in doubt and voters have a meaningful choice. In 2014, only 39 out of 435 seats were considered competitive, the lowest in a five decades. Safe districts, in turn, reward hyper-partisanship. Incumbents of either party need only appeal to their base (often only in a primary in which only a small portion of the party’s base votes) with less incentive to broaden their message or concerns.

So how did we get here? The United States inherited the idea of lawmakers drawing their districts from colonial England. There were relatively few eligible voters and no other precedent to go on. Districts varied in population and followed town and county lines. In 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Gerry drew a salamander like district to advantage his party the concept of “gerrymandering” was born. But it wasn’t until the 1960’s when the Supreme Court established the principle of “one person, one vote” requiring that districts have close to equal population that redistricting reached a modern level of political targeting and incumbent protection.

Today no new democracy would consider allowing this. In fact, in a recent study of 60 democracies that divide jurisdictions into election districts, the United States and France are the only democracies that let legislators draw their own districts. The other countries who, like the U.S. and France, use single winner districts to elect their primary representative body have switched to independent, non-partisan commissions to draw voting district lines – including England, Canada and Australia. The rest of the world uses some kind of proportional or mixed system where, for at least half the legislative seats, voters determine the winners based on the proportionate share of the vote.

Nonpartisanship has a foothold in the U.S. Recently voters in Arizona and California passed ballot measures taking away redistricting power from the legislature and establishing non-partisan redistricting commissions. Iowa does something similar. It has an independent commission that draws two or three maps based on nonpartisan criteria that the legislature must choose from.

Redistricting is inherently challenging. While not perfect, non-partisan commissions have worked better with far greater public support and acceptance. The courts agree. In the last two years the Supreme Court rejected two high profile partisan challenges designed to dismantle Arizona’s voter-backed commission and return control to the legislature. As for promoting greater political competition, in 2014 the number of competitive congressional seats in Arizona, California and Iowa was more than twice the national average.

Five other states, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington, use bi-partisan commissions. They have equal numbers appointed by the two major parties that then jointly choose another member to act as a deciding vote. This does prevent the party in power taking all the spoils, but it is still the two parties – not voters – driving the process.

These commissions don’t solve all the inherent challenges of drawing lines to equalize population across a state. Some would say we should dispense with districts all together and adopt proportional methods. But while we use single winner districts, likely for the foreseeable future, as a country we have a stark choice on who gets to map the new boundaries and what criteria should be used to do it. In short –

Continue to let sitting legislators choose their voters, where, even with good intentions, the driving criteria is protecting incumbency and fixing the outcome to favor the party in power.

Or, transition to independent nonpartisan commissions required by their charter to follow set criteria like those used in Arizona, California and Iowa where districts must:

  • Comply with the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act
  • Be contiguous so that all parts of the district are connected to each other.
  • Respect the boundaries of cities, counties, and neighborhoods, as well as “communities of common interest” (such as keeping a rural population together)
  • Promote political competition that does not favor or discriminate against any candidate (incumbent or challenger) or political party.

Learn more:
All About Redistricting, Justin Leavitt, Professor of Law at Loyola Law School – here
What is Gerrymandering, Andrew Prokop, editor – here
Comparative Redistricting in Perspective, Lisa Handley and Bernard Grofman, eds. Oxford University Press, 2008 – here
Redistricting, National Conference on State Legislators (NCSL) – here


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