Will new reforms limit gerrymandering?

To follow is an excerpt from the CQ Researcher issue "Redistricting Debates" by Kenneth Jost on February 25, 2011.


Should redistricting be done by independent commissions instead of state legislatures?

As head of Arizona's first citizens' redistricting commission, Steve Lynn spent thousands of hours over the past decade redrawing legislative and congressional districts in Arizona and defending the new maps in federal and state courts. Lynn, a utility company executive in Tucson who says he is both a former Democrat and former Republican, counts the commission's work a success: no judicial map-drawing, more opportunities for minorities and — in his view at least — more competitive districts.

Surprisingly, however, Lynn voted against Proposition 106 when it was on the Arizona ballot in 2000. Back then, he had no quarrel with the state legislature doing the job. Today, Lynn endorses independent commissions, but somewhat equivocally. “It's one way to do it,” Lynn told a redistricting conference sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures in late January. “It's not the only way to do it. Either way can work.” [Footnote 9]

Thirteen states now have redistricting commissions or boards with primary responsibility for drawing legislative districts; seven of those also have responsibility for drawing congressional districts. [Footnote *] Apart from the Arizona and California citizen commissions, the other bodies consist of specifically designated officeholders or members chosen in various ways by political officeholders with an eye to partisan balance. Five other states have backup commissions that take over redistricting in the event of a legislative impasse; two others have advisory commissions.

Two of the non-legislative bodies are long-standing: Ohio's, created in 1850; and the Texas backup commission, established in 1947. McDonald, the George Mason professor with the Public Mapping Project, says those commissions and others created in the 1960s and since were designed to make sure that redistricting was completed on time, not to divorce the process from politics. Indeed, McDonald says, there is “no evidence” that the commissions, despite their description as “bipartisan,” have reduced the kind of self-interested or partisan line-drawing that gives redistricting a bad name.

By contrast, the Arizona and California commissions consist of citizens who apply for the positions in screening processes somewhat akin to college admissions. Candidates must specify that they have not served within a specified time period in any party position or federal or state office.

In Arizona, applicants for the five-member commission are screened by the appellate court nominating commission, which approves a pool of 25 candidates: 10 Republicans, 10 Democrats and five independents. From that pool, the majority and minority leaders of the state House of Representatives and Senate each pick one member; those four then pick one of the independents to serve as chair.

California's process is even more complex. The state auditor's office screens candidates, forming a pool of 60, equally divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents. Those lists are provided to legislative leaders, who can strike a total of 24 applicants. The auditor's office then chooses the first eight commissioners by randomly pulling names from a spinning basket: three from each of the major parties and two independents. Those eight then pick six more: two Democrats, two Republicans and two independents.

Cressman, with Common Cause, acknowledges the complexity of the process. “It is challenging to come up with a system that gives you a combination of expertise and diversity and screens out conflict of interest and self-interest,” he says.

Opponents of California's Proposition 11 cited the complexity in campaigning against the ballot measure in 2008. They also argued the commission would be both costly and politically unaccountable. In 2010, opponents qualified an initiative to abolish the commission, which appeared on the same ballot with the measure to expand the commission's role to congressional redistricting. The repealer, Proposition 27, failed by a 40 percent to 60 percent margin.

Political veterans in California continue to complain about the commission — in private. But longtime redistricting expert Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at the University of California-Berkeley and now executive director of the university's Washington, D.C., program, publicly challenged the commission approach in a presentation to the state legislators' group in January.

Cain told the legislators that commissions result in added costs because of the need to train commission members, hire additional staff and consultants and hold extra rounds of public hearings. In any event, Cain said that reformers “oversell” the likely benefits of commissions. Commissions “cannot avoid making political judgments” and are as likely as legislatures to run afoul of legal requirements, he says.

“It doesn't matter whether you have a pure heart,” Cain concludes. “If you wind up with a plan that's unfair to one group or another, you're going to have trouble.”

Cressman is optimistic about the California commission, which heard from a series of experts in training sessions in January and held its first public hearing in February. “They have a lot of expertise,” Cressman says. “They strongly reflect the diversity of California. And they are quite ready to attack their job quite seriously.”

Still, experts across the board profess uncertainty about whether the California commission will deliver on the supporters' promise of a fairer redistricting plan. “It's a very open question whether those hopes will be realized,” says Douglas Johnson, president of the National Demographics Corporation, which consults on redistricting issues for governments and public interest groups. Johnson himself helped draft the initiative.

The Issues

* Should partisan gerrymandering be restricted?
* Should district lines be drawn to help minorities get elected to office?
* Should redistricting be done by independent commissions instead of state legislatures?

For more information on the CQ Researcher report on "Redistricting Debates" [subscription required] or purchase the PDF.



[9] The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission's website is at www.azredistricting.org/?page=.

*The number includes Montana, which currently has one House member, elected at large; Montana lost its second House seat after the 1990 census.