As the once-a-decade redistricting process begins, government accountability groups and the public call on lawmakers for more transparency. They’re advocating for reforms like independent redistricting commissions (IRCs).
IRCs aim to make the process more transparent by ensuring that elected officials do not draw electoral districts to ensure they get re-elected or keep their power in office. They’re a great idea. But they’re not a magic bullet.
Defining the Issue
The redistricting process determines how state and federal elected officials will represent citizens. It is crucial for communities, and a central question in the fight against gerrymandering is whether the people of a society have the opportunity to shape their representation.
To promote transparency, advocacy groups have called on lawmakers to give a more excellent voice. In April, a coalition of organizations sent a letter to members of the committees that will draw district maps, urging them to waive their confidentiality provisions to increase public participation.
However, since redistricting reform is unlikely to reach the national level this year, we must focus on local and state policies that can impact gerrymandering. These policies include requiring that the process be transparent, prohibiting the use of political data in drawing districts, and ensuring that local communities have the opportunity to participate.
In addition, the coalition has also supported legislation in the states that would create independent redistricting commissions to limit political influence and ensure fairness. These initiatives will empower community voices, promote discussion and public commentary on the process, and provide a counterbalance to incumbency-based and partisan gerrymandering.
Defining the Problem
If elected officials are in charge of drawing districts, they will have partisan goals at the forefront when crafting the lines determining how many seats each party holds. Many state laws discourage elected officials from “gerrymandering” – intentionally drawing electoral maps that favor their political party at the expense of voters’ preferences – but some states still allow line drawers to manipulate district boundaries to benefit themselves and their party.
Creating district boundaries should be open to the public and transparent, so citizens can see what is being negotiated behind closed doors. Ideally, the lines should be drawn by an independent body, but this isn’t always possible in practice. The best way to ensure that the process is transparent and that communities of interest are represented is to have independent redistricting commissions mandated by law to consider factors such as compactness, contiguity, and respect for communities of interest.
A few states have enacted laws that put redistricting in the hands of an independent, bipartisan committee. Unfortunately, those groups are often still vulnerable to partisanship and a lack of transparency. This is why all states need to have enforceable, clear standards that commissioners must follow to draw maps with community interests in mind.
Defining the Solution
A good redistricting process must include a flow of information from those responsible for drawing the lines to the public and a chance for communities to ask questions. The goal is to draw districts that keep like voters together while allowing for competitive elections and respecting minority interests.
That means limiting the partisan influence of mapmakers and making sure they aren’t being asked to draw maps that benefit their party. It also requires an independent body to remove the district lines and allow the public to participate.
A recent example of a flawed process occurred in Indiana, where state legislators hired a Republican political consultant for congressional redistricting. A coalition of fair districting groups held a press conference to demand that lawmakers disclose the details of this hire and clarify how they will engage with the public on redistricting issues.
Several ideas for fixing the problem are circulating. None of them is a magic bullet, but they are all worth considering in tandem and alone. They could include changes to the rules that govern the process, increased transparency, the use of objective data, consideration of community of interest boundaries, and a prohibition on using any political data to create district lines.
Defining the Goals
At the state and local levels, jurisdictions must act to reform redistricting to ensure that fair districts represent communities. This can be done by establishing independent redistricting commissions or passing laws clearly showing criteria map drawers must abide by when creating district maps. Jurisdictions should also open the process to informed and engaged citizens, whether through hearings or online software that allows them to submit their proposals for district boundaries.
Many of the most challenging aspects of redistricting relate to minority representation. For example, it is almost always illegal to discriminate against a recognized racial minority by drawing district lines that diminish their voting strength. Unfortunately, this type of gerrymandering has occurred with alarming frequency.
The most important thing states can do to combat it is to use technology to make data available for the public to analyze and share with others in government and the media. Services can provide current and projected population estimates and the ability to create and share district boundary scenarios with communities, enabling citizens to have a more significant say in redistricting decisions. However, whether these new technologies will overcome the barriers that have historically prevented people from participating in the redistricting process remains to be seen. For it to work, people must care enough to demand change.