In or Out with Independent Commissions?

In or Out with Independent Commissions?

Attention all electoral policy wonks, there’s now a game where you can show off your redistricting skills and get graded on it. The Redistricting Game offers users the opportunity play as republicans, democrats, or independent commissioners to redraw district lines. While the game is fun to play, its agenda leads one to the conclusion that independent commissions (as proposed by the Tanner Reform Bill) are an obvious improvement. Rising above the partisan gridlock that chokes American political reform sounds like a great idea, but what are they and do they work? How do Americans actually feel about this controversial new method to redraw district lines?

In December 2017, the Center for Electoral Equity conducted the American Redistricting and Voter Attitudes Study (ARVAS) to better understand what regular Americans know about redistricting and how they feel about redistricting policies . In general, CEE found that Americans don’t know much about redistricting: only 12% of respondents feet “very informed” about how electoral districts are drawn in their state of residence. And only 4% are “very satisfied” about the way district lines are drawn in their state, with widespread perception that elected officials use redistricting to benefit their political party (77% of respondents), use redistricting to increase incumbent advantage (69%), and use redistricting to dilute minority voting power (56%).

Just as important as understanding why Americans are dissatisfied with current redistricting processes, CEE wanted to know what Americans think is a solution to current redistricting issues. When ARVAS respondents were asked who they thought should be responsible for deciding how congressional district lines are drawn, 27% answered Independent Commissions. In fact, this was the second most popular answer, after “state lawmakers, with all parties having equal say” (33%).

But… what exactly is an independent redistricting commission?

An independent redistricting commission (IRC) is a non-partisan or bipartisan body designated to draw the electoral district boundaries of a state. IRC’s are responsible for district mapping in six states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, and Washington.

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As with all redistricting processes, the make-up and selection of the members of IRCs vary by state. All six states, however, specify that members of the IRCs cannot be legislators or public officials. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that commissions whose redistricting commission process is independent of the state legislature are constitutional. Nonetheless, arguments continue about the effectiveness of IRCs in increasing the fairness of redistricting processes and increasing electoral competition.

Proponents of bipartisan IRCs believe that they have can transform redistricting processes for the better. For example, a study published in 2017 in the Journal of Politics illustrates that IRCs tend to draw more compact districts, with less voter ‘packing’ and ‘cracking’ and more preservation of prior district population cores. In 2016, Common Cause also conducted a study and found that legislators are almost four times more likely than independent commissions to produce congressional districts that deny voters choices in a primary and more than twice as likely to do so in general elections. The Brennan Center has also shown that maps drawn by commissions, courts, and split-control state governments exhibited much lower levels of partisan bias. Even Caroline Fredrickson, the President of the American Constitution Society, agrees that IRCs are more responsive to voters when it comes to redistricting.

 

Opponents prescribe caution to those who want to overhaul state redistricting processes. The fundamental argument is that IRCs violate Article 1, Section 4, of the U.S. Constitution, "the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof," where “legislature” is interpreted literally. In the 2015 Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission Supreme Court case, this was the cornerstone of the amicus brief submitted by the National Conference of State Legislatures in support of the Arizona State Legislature. Republican strategist Chris Jankowski, argue that IRCs are less transparent and less accountable to voters than elected officials in the state legislature. Studies have shown that “independent commissions may not be as politically-neutral as theorized. Rather, incumbency continues to be an issue whether district maps are drawn by legislators, politicians, or commissions, and based on some state by state data, it is unlikely that IRCs will increase electoral competition.

Concern about the processes that govern state congressional redistricting is rising, and many reformers see IRCs as one of the chief methods of reducing gerrymandering and making the redistricting process fairer. As demonstrated by CEE’s ARVAS, Americans feel dissatisfied and many agree that IRCs should be the way forward. Americans are taking action across the U.S.: voters in Ohio and South Dakota recently considered ballot initiatives to create IRCs, half a million signatures were collected in Illinois collected to initiate a ballot question, and citizens in Colorado filed a similar proposal.

 

Vernon Grigg