A central element of this remarkable year in election reform has been the pivot of the anti-gerrymandering fight from the courts to the ballot boxes. As has been widely reported, five states vote this year on state constitutional amendments to block partisan gerrymandering and fundamentally change how redistricting is done, far more than in any other year.
Ohio approved its amendment in May with 75% support; four others -- Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah -- will vote in November. Nearly a million citizens in these states signed petitions to bring these reforms to voters.
What does the reform community need to know about what’s in these proposed amendments, about the processes they establish and the redistricting criteria they prioritize? To answer that question, Election Reformers Network recently published an in-depth report, titled, “Laboratories of Democracy at Work: A Comparison of the 2018 Anti-Gerrymandering Ballot Initiatives.” You can access the full report here.
The five initiatives differ in the changes they envision to both the process and the purpose of redistricting. They differ in the degree redistricting will be independent from elected officials, and in the political context and degree of organized opposition to reform.
Three of the reforms rely on independent commissions, while one, Missouri’s, introduces the novel idea of a Nonpartisan State Demographer to lead the map-making effort. Provisions for fairness run the gamut from the quite vague language in Ohio that maps “cannot unduly favor a political party” to Missouri’s explicit requirement that efficiency gap calculations sum as near to zero as possible. Two of the five states explicitly require increased competitiveness, three do not.
As the report details, the solutions cover the range of options on all the key variables -- exactly what we look for from our state “laboratories of democracy.”
Here’s the report’s conclusion:
"Reviews of the redistricting reforms in the two states with the most prominent experience so far, California and Arizona, point to successes on several fronts, but also reveal shortcomings. California has to date experienced only a minimal increase in transition in party control of Congressional seats, because of the challenge of self-sorting discussed above, and perhaps because California’s reform did not include competitiveness as an explicit criteria. Arizona, which did prioritize competiveness, has had success on that front but at the cost of extreme partisan battling, reaching the level of death threats to the Chair of the state’s redistricting commission.
It’s clear that drafters of the reforms under review have learned from these experiences, and also benefited from the growing analytical sophistication brought to bear on this issue. But at a big picture level, the potential for impact of redistricting reform is still constrained by the system it works within: single member districts, which almost always create highly contested two party systems and a large number of unrepresented voters.
These factors are important to keep in mind exactly because of the remarkable extent that ending gerrymandering has gained attention as the key to solving our democracy’s woes. It seems very likely that these five reforms will succeed in their aims and that much more fair and transparent redistricting will be done in these states after the 2020 census. It’s also possible that some of the highest hopes for how much this change will fix our democracy will go unfulfilled. From the point of view of our democracy, it may well be the process itself that’s most important, a process that in five states in one year led to citizens and their leaders putting a stop to long accepted self-serving behavior by elected officials.
No system is perfect, but one worth considering is that proposed by the recently introduced Fair Representation Act, which calls for multi-member congressional districts (typically three to five members) elected with ranked choice voting. Among other benefits, this approach would greatly simplify redistricting, it would also likely help diffuse our corrosive partisanship."