The good, the bad and the ugly of redistricting reform
With decennial redistricting over, reformers need to take a clear-eyed look at what worked and what didn't
As this redistricting cycle draws to a dreary close – that is, before the next round of litigation and mid-decade gerrymanders – many pundits are trying to determine what new maps mean for the midterms and the partisan battle for Congress.
Especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has shown its true colors on voting rights, it’s an important question to consider. Smart voices differ on the answer. What most everyone agrees on, however, is that this vital line-drawing process remains utterly broken.
When you add up the twin toxic effects of partisan demographics in one-party states – liberals dominating in cities, conservatives in rural areas and the exurbs – combined with extreme partisan gerrymanders in purple states, at least 90 percent of all U.S. House seats are locked in for one side or the other. We can predict the winners for this November’s election in nearly all districts before a single vote has been cast.
It will be harder to find a Republican Congress member in blue Maryland, New Mexico and Illinois, and all but impossible in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Blue-state Republicans won’t get the representation they deserve, and neither will red-state Democrats in Oklahoma, Utah, Kansas and Tennessee. Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas – all various shades of purple – will have House delegations much redder than their electorates.
All of which is to say: It’s voters who emerged from this cycle as the biggest losers. And perhaps what’s most frustrating is that so many people worked so hard to ensure that this decade would be different, only to be blocked by their very own elected representatives.
The extreme gerrymanders of a decade ago sparked a national movement for redistricting reform. Voters demanded – and won – a better, fairer process in states covering every hue of the political spectrum. All of those reforms were a little different. Some worked effectively over the past few months during various states’ redistricting battles, and some were rescued by the courts. There are some positive stories and some states – such as Michigan and Virginia – that are in a notably better place than they were 10 years ago.
And yet: The majority of the redistricting commissions were ignored, sabotaged or hijacked by partisans. And all too often, partisan courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, protected incumbents who unraveled the people’s will and worked to entrench themselves in office.
The road to fair maps and equitable representation may get tougher from here, as courts continue to weaken the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Supreme Court considers cases that could curtail the power of state courts to police extreme maps, and even hold that independent commissions are unconstitutional.
But as tough as the road ahead might look, it’s worth taking another look at the reforms – the good, the bad and the really ugly – that many hoped would improve this cycle, and how politicians worked to undermine them.
How it started: More than 61 percent of voters approved a citizens’ initiative that created a truly independent citizens redistricting commission in 2018, after several decades of gerrymandered maps.
How it’s going: Thirteen citizens of all political stripes worked to unwind gerrymandered congressional and state legislative maps, avoiding partisan battles and the brutal deadlocks in other states, and produced competitive, balanced maps that have withstood all legal challenges.
How it started: Upwards of 70 percent of Colorado voters approved two independent redistricting commissions of citizens, one for Congress and one for the state legislature, selected largely by retired judges, with limited input from legislative leaders.
How it’s going: The commission approved, by a vote of 11-1, a Congressional map with three Republican seats, three Democratic seats, and two considered competitive based on recent electoral data. The state supreme court approved it unanimously, dismissing criticisms that the commission should have created more competitive seats, or that the map diluted Latino voters.
How it started: A nonpartisan citizen movement convinced both the GOP-controlled legislature, and then a Democratic-controlled legislature, to approve a commission split equally between voters and politicians, then resoundingly won a statewide constitutional amendment vote in 2020. It was the first time politicians agreed to voluntarily surrender any control over redistricting.
How it’s going: Toxic politicians of all stripes refused to work together and forced unnecessary gridlock, frustrating citizens who worked toward a good-faith process. That pushed the process to the state supreme court, which appointed fair-minded special masters and created competitive, responsive maps.
How it started: In 2018, voters narrowly passed a statewide initiative that established an independent commission to draft new maps.
How it’s going: In 2020, Utah lawmakers, heavily dominated by the GOP, took it upon themselves to rework that process, and made the redistricting commission merely advisory. The commission recommended a dozen maps, all of which the legislature ignored en route to passing a hyperpartisan gerrymander that splits blue Salt Lake County four ways and fractures its Democratic voting bloc, eliminates a swing seat, and ensures a 4-0 GOP delegation in the US House of Representatives.
How it started: In 2018, more than 62 percent of voters approved a statewide citizens’ initiative known as Clean Missouri, which among other reforms, created a nonpartisan state demographer to draw maps.
How it’s going: Politicians barely let the ink dry before trying to undo the voters' will. Finally, in 2020, lawmakers rammed through a confusing initiative that barely won, 51-49%, and undid most of the controls voters had tried to install. It actually created one of the least transparent and most radical redistricting processes in the nation, and left voters with fewer tools to challenge extreme maps in court.
How it started: A citizens’ initiative created one of the nation’s first redistricting commissions here in 2000, with wide support from both political parties and independents.
How it’s going: After two decades, the GOP found and exploited the loopholes in this poorly structured commission. With two appointed Democrats, two appointed Republicans, and one independent chair, all vetted by an obscure state personnel board, all the power rests in the chair of the commission. So Gov. Doug Ducey packed that once-quiet board with loyalists, and they produced a set of “independent” chair finalists filled with donors, family members and other connections to the state GOP.
How it started: Voters in 2014 approved a 10-person bipartisan commission to draw maps, with appointees from the legislative leadership of both parties.
How it’s going: Democratic lawmakers openly schemed to implode the commission from the beginning, pushing the intentionally deadlocked process back to the legislature. Then, they drew a wildly gerrymandered congressional map favoring Democrats. Three state courts agreed that the map was unconstitutional, and ultimately a neutral special master was tasked with the job.
How it started: In 2015 and 2018, upwards of 70 percent of voters approved reforms that required a bipartisan commission of seven officials to adopt a fair map that reflects the state’s political demographics.
How it’s going: Lawlessly. The Republicans on the commission not only produced wildly gerrymandered maps, they ignored repeated rulings by the state supreme court that their maps were unconstitutional and to produce districts in accordance with the law. A federal court then established an artificial deadline by which one of the GOP’s maps would simply be enacted, giving Republicans little incentive to do anything but stall.
There are clear trends here to learn from. Advisory commissions are treated as exactly that – something lawmakers feel perfectly confident to ignore, and so are mostly useless. Commissions that include politicians or other partisans become poisoned from the inside. Some state courts will stand tall, some will not – and sometimes lawmakers will ignore a state supreme court.
These maps matter so much that lawmakers will do most anything they can to get around any independent control. But when citizens run the show, and when politicians can’t hijack the panel or cherry-pick its members, a fairer process can happen.
So what do we do from here? I would suggest that a process this broken needs a broader overhaul. Since we redistrict only once a decade, when a reform doesn’t solve the problem then our state and national politics suffer for 10 years. The trouble with the current approach is that lawmakers of all sides aren’t acting in good faith and too many fixes can be overrun by determined lawmakers who find loopholes or drive commissions intentionally into gridlock.
Only about two dozen states have the power of citizen initiatives, and even fewer have the political will to create true citizen panels such as the ones in California and Michigan. National action went nowhere in this Congress, and will not likely succeed at the federal level any time soon. In one-party states where lawmakers run the process, citizens are doomed to meaningless elections where a party primary might be the only election that matters.
Perhaps it’s time to think about an expanded approach, let’s call it “commissions-plus.” The root problem here is that given our single-member district system, the location of each line determines winners and losers. And in a system as closely divided and polarized as ours, a handful of seats can swing the balance of power, making each district – and each line – of massive importance. Let’s change that.
A more proportional system for electing the U.S. House, using moderately larger multi-member districts and ranked choice voting, is worth serious consideration by the redistricting world. Independent commissions would draw the larger super districts. With multiple seats, both Democrats and Republicans would be elected, perhaps even an independent candidate every now and then, in nearly every district. That would blunt the importance of each specific line and reduce the power of anyone to exert undue and unfair partisan pressure.
This kind of proportional voting method would also help ensure fair representation of communities of color, at a time when the Voting Rights Act is under continued judicial assault, and will remain so given the clear loyalties of the current Supreme Court. Until the “single-member seat” problem is solved, partisans won’t have any incentive not to crawl in through the basement window and doom commissions from working as intended.
Some might say that the political muscle isn’t there for such a heavy lift as to enact proportional voting. But the political muscle also doesn’t exist to create a California- or Michigan-style commission in every state. That road is probably permanently closed in most one-party states as well, be they Democrat-led Massachusetts or GOP-led Texas. Big fixes take time. They require persuasion, convincing and education.
And they require reformers to take a clear-eyed look at what is and isn’t working about current approaches. With the latest toxic round of redistricting over, now is the time to start talking about what we do from here.
David Daley @davedaley3
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David, as you said: National action will not likely succeed any time soon. That means no multi-member districts for the US House for a long time. It's not hard to imagine the lack of sufficient national alignment extending through 2028. (Or maybe Biden will step aside and Pete Buttigieg and Liz Cheney can put together an anti-MAGA unity ticket for '24, Evan McMullin-like, but let's not hold our breath.)
Historically, reforms come to Washington DC only with sustained pressure and after having been road-tested in the states. DC usually does not reform itself.
So, as you suggest, look to the states. A two-pronged approach is needed, not one. You're right that states where lawmakers run the process are doomed to meaningless elections. In those states, if there is sufficient political will, citizens need to be demanding initiatives as much as trying again to create truly independent, effective citizen commissions using what is now known about what doesn't work and what does.
Among the approximately two dozen states that have citizen initiatives, ... In swing-state Michigan, which has sufficient political will, and California, which is a one-party state but nevertheless has a very strong initiative history, and perhaps some other initiative states where there may be sufficient political will (CO, AZ?), a public conversation about fixing unresponsive democracy and reducing wasted votes for both R and D voters needs to be started, independent of the parties. This applies as much to initiative states that have succeeded in redistricting reform as those that have not.
Voters in a US state deserve as good representation as voters in other large democracies typically have, called the cube root rule. Probably only New Hampshire has an adequately sized (actually overly large) state lower house - and they love it.
The solution to unresponsive democracy involves fewer voters per representative, always having a representative of your own political persuasion to represent your views, multi-member districts and a more proportional election method for a state's lower house. A compensatory seat tier and going unicameral also could figure in the discussion (Nebraska's been unicameral for 85 years).
As you said, big fixes take time and require activist education and much public discussion. They start as strange ideas, become campaigns and succeed in states before nationally.
I think you might want to add a comment on Washington State. The state has a semi-independent redistricting commission, but it was very dysfunctional this year. They missed their deadline to create maps and violated the state's open meetings law. The state Supreme Court let them get away with it because they didn't want to get involved. I think this is a great example of where the institutional design of the redistricting commission in WA has been overlooked and will cause problems going forward if it is not reformed. It is also a sign that sometimes once you have a "reform" institution in place it will be very hard to change into something more effective. So I think reformers need to be very careful in designing their reforms.