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State redistricting commissions get mixed reviews

Taking partisan bias out of the mapmaking process is hard to do

Independent commissions were expected to take partisan favoritism out of the redistricting process, but that hasn’t always been the case so far this year.
Independent commissions were expected to take partisan favoritism out of the redistricting process, but that hasn’t always been the case so far this year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As states sprint through their redistricting processes this fall, many activists are learning that mapmaking commissions don’t quite address gerrymandering or minority voting protections as intended.

Most state legislatures control the map-drawing process, but a handful now have redistricting commissions of varying construction and independence with a say in line drawing. Some, like New York’s, play an advisory role, while others, like those in California and Colorado, officially set the lines.

Advocates expected redistricting commissions to take partisan favoritism out of the mapmaking process, but some maps have favored one party over the other while others have shortchanged growing minority communities. Experts have argued some bias is unavoidable in a political environment in which most Democratic voters are packed in urban areas and most Republicans live in more rural ones.

Getting commissions rather than elected state legislators to control mapmaking has taken decades of campaigning from groups such as the League of Women Voters, which backed a 2018 referendum creating a commission process in Ohio. The new process in that state and others produced some regrets though, according to the state league’s executive director, Jen Miller.

“We hoped everyone’s better angels would prevail, but what we’ve seen is a disregard for Ohio voters and Ohio’s democracy, and politicians have not honored the letter or the spirit of the reform,” Miller said.

With control of Congress at stake in next year’s elections, experts expect the new set of House maps to be a determining factor in who controls the chamber come 2023 — and in most states, state legislators still oversee the process. Ten states have some form of independent commission that draws the maps, five have advisory commissions like New York’s, and another three have “backup” commissions like Ohio’s, which take over the redistricting plan if the state’s legislature fails to do so.

Reformers aiming to end partisan gerrymandering think, on the whole, commissions have helped states get to fairer maps. Joe Kabourek, the senior campaign director for anti-gerrymandering group RepresentUs, said legislature-drawn maps have been far worse for voters overall.

The group paired up with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to grade legislative maps on partisan fairness, compactness and other measures. On average, commission states averaged a “B” grade map, while legislators have averaged a “D” grade.

“We think the proof is in the pudding on this; those commissions are producing better maps on a grading scale than the politician states, but I think it’s entirely predictable,” Kabourek said.

However, geographic polarization may prevent states like Iowa, Arizona and Michigan from drawing maps that represent the state’s overall competitiveness, according to Jowei Chen, a political science professor at the University of Michigan. He told participants at a Duke conference on redistricting earlier this year that other considerations in mapmaking, like splitting as few counties or municipalities as possible, may tilt independently drawn maps.

“Democrats are concentrated in urban areas, and that’s part of the political geography. Any time you produce maps that are just following county boundaries, following municipal boundaries, just following geographic compactness, there is going to be a partisan effect,” Chen said.

Partisan breakdowns and distrust

The Ohio redistricting commission, which met after the General Assembly failed to pass a map, blew past its deadline to adopt a plan, returning the process to the legislature. State legislators have since finalized a map that Miller said would split communities and tilt control to Republicans. 

Former President Donald Trump would have carried 13 of the state’s 15 redrawn districts in 2020, although he won the state with 53 percent of the vote. The new map also got rid of the district of Democrat Tim Ryan, who is running for Senate, and made Democrat Marcy Kaptur’s seat Republican-leaning.

“The maps produced by the party in power slice and dice communities like they’re chopping vegetables,” Miller said. “They don’t care about keeping communities whole or creating a map that works for voters. They only care about making sure they can keep their supermajority in Congress as long as possible.”

Virginia, Michigan and Colorado are going through the commission process for the first time after voters in those states adopted the system for this redistricting cycle. But the process has run into bumps. Virginia’s commission missed a deadline for state legislative maps after partisan commissioners stopped meeting in October over disagreements. Now the whole process has defaulted to the state Supreme Court, which is currently selecting special masters to draw the maps.

Activists in Michigan criticized the process underway there for ignoring the concerns of Black voters, particularly in Detroit. Michigan Independent Redistricting Commission head Steve Lett defended the commission’s process during an event after releasing draft maps in November.

“We came up with what we perceive to be good maps,” he told reporters. “Are they perfect maps? No. But we feel they’re good maps.”

The commission ultimately approved draft maps that consolidated Black voters in Detroit, but they also drew criticism from Republicans for diluting the party’s share of power. The commission plans to vote on a final map later this month.

Colorado’s new map fell short in several ways, particularly for the growing Hispanic community in the state, said Rick Ridder, a Democratic strategist based in the state. The map was devoted to holding to the status quo in a state that has grown more Democratic over the years, he said. Overall, much of the state’s growth was fueled by the increasing Hispanic population.

“Fundamentally, by creating such a commission, the Democratic Party, under the mantra of fairness and reform, gave up much of their power,” Ridder said. “You have got to be very careful with the notion of reform because you may not get what you think you’re getting.”

Colorado’s map received an “A” grade for fairness from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. In the 2020 election, President Joe Biden carried the state 55 percent to 42 percent, and if the new map were in place he would have won five of the state’s eight districts, including the new 8th District north of Denver. 

The Colorado League of United Latin American Citizens challenged the map in the state Supreme Court, writing in a brief that the commission diluted Latino electoral power. The new 8th District has a 38 percent Latino population, which the organization argued was not enough for them to elect a candidate of their choice.

“[The map] has placed north Denver’s Latino voters in Colorado’s most competitive district, which appears superficially to be a Latino electoral influence district but is unlikely to be effective,” the brief said.

The court ultimately rejected that argument in a ruling last month, signing off on Colorado’s new map.

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