Gerrymandering is nearly as old as America itself, named after James Madison’s vice president and governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry. The advantageous practice of drawing legislative districts along partisan lines may seem unfair, but thanks to the support from the two major parties it has remained part of the status quo for over 200 years. That has diminished the number of competitive races and creates more partisan legislatures, both on a state and national level.
Like with any government reform, progress moves slow, but voters have the means to take the power away from legislatures via ballot initiatives. There have been successes and failures, but at least anti-gerrymandering processes have begun.
The majority of states, or 37, follow the status quo with the state legislature having authority to draw electoral districts. There are seven states that only have one congressional district. States like Wyoming, Vermont, and Alaska do not have a large enough population to warrant more than one representative in the House of Representatives. The rest have been experiments in anti-gerrymandering initiatives.
Illinois is an example of a state that has had a difficult time with independent redistricting, starting with a failed attempt in 2014 by Independent Maps. Though the measure was denied ballot access due to an insufficient amount of valid signatures, proponents tried again in 2016.
In 2016, the signatures were no longer a problem, but the effort failed again before the Illinois State Supreme Court. The seven-member court voted 4-3 along party lines to uphold a lower court’s decision that a redistricting commission would put too much power in the hands of non-politicians. That was a victory for the Democrats -- especially for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. In reality, redistricting is valued by leaders of both parties.
There is still time to try and get on the ballot in the 2018 midterm elections. If successful that would leave two years to get the independent commission operational in time for the 2020 Census, when the next redistricting happens.
The purpose of redistricting in general is to account for the growing populations, which is why it happens after every decennial census. The Fourteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution requires equal population sizes in congressional districts, hence the Census every 10 years.
The House undergoes reapportionment, which stipulates how many districts each state will have. That is followed by each state redrawing the lines. Hence the reason so many congressional representatives have a tendency to switch from one district to another.
This ongoing redistricting process has been abused to marginalize certain voters along partisan, racial, or any other socioeconomic lines, providing a legal advantage for the majority party. There are still inherent checks and balances. When the eventual tide turns, the once-minority party gets to do the same thing and so the cycle repeats.
In Iowa, anti-gerrymandering efforts are handled differently. Redistricting is a task shared between the state’s Legislative Services Agency (LSA) and an independent 5-person committee. Four of the five members of the independent committee are selected from majority and minority leaders in the state House and Senate. The final commissioner is selected by the first four.
Holding a partisan office disqualifies any potential committee member. The catch is that the committee merely advises the state legislature by presenting the finished map while the lawmakers have final say.
In contrast to Illinois, Arizonans voted in 2000 to reform the state constitution by taking the power to draw district boundaries out of legislators' hands and into a nonpartisan commission. Arizona Prop 106 passed with 56% of the vote, creating the independent redistricting commission.
The Arizona IRC struck at the heart of the problem with Prop 106.
Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Arizona; Amending Article IV, Part 2, Section 1, Constitution of Arizona; relating to ending the practice of gerrymandering and improving voter and candidate participation in elections by creating an independent commission of balanced appointments to oversee the mapping of fair and competitive congressional and legislative districts.
The purpose of redrawing districts should be to ensure more competitive elections and improve voter participation, not to be a tool to keep one party in the majority.
The Arizona state legislature challenged Prop 106, taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawmakers failed, albeit raising much dissent in the highest court in the land.
The Arizona independent redistricting model and the ensuing Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission Supreme Court case raised the question of who really has the ability to draw voting boundaries.
Arizona state lawmakers claimed to have Article 1, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution on their side.
The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of choosing Senators.
Justice Ginsberg’s majority opinion reinforced the concept that a legislature does not have to be defined as the body of elected lawmakers, but can and should include the voters who elect them.
In an odd way, it was the lawmakers versus the voters and the winners were given the map.
The Golden State shares Arizona’s ballot initiative process whereby voters have the ability to enact laws and even reform the state constitution. Redistricting reform in California began in 2008 with Prop 11, which established an independent redistricting commission to redraw electoral boundaries for the state Assembly and Senate. It was succeeded by Prop 20 in 2010, which extended the commission's authority to congressional districts as well.
California's commission is much larger than Arizona’s, consisting of 14 members -- 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans, and 4 from neither the majority nor minority party. Through checks and balances like in a jury selection process, leaders in the state legislature can remove members. As a general rule of thumb, commissioners are not allowed to be elected officials as that would be counterproductive.
New Jersey has a unique model for dealing with electoral redistricting. New Jersey has two commissions dealing with state and congressional districts separately.
The New Jersey State Constitutional Convention in 1966 shifted the ability to draw state legislative lines from the state legislature to a 10-member Apportionment Commission. Congressional districts are drawn by a 13-member committee. Party leaders in the state legislature pick the members for the congressional committee and state party leaders do the same for state districts.
Progress is slow, but with these anti-gerrymandering initiatives underway in several states -- regardless of how it is organized -- the precedent is set. More competitive districts means more competitive elections and that bodes to a more representative legislature both on the state level and in Congress.