There are few aspects of politics that appeal to politicians’ worst demons more than redistricting. The process begins after the decennial census is conducted and population data is given to the states, which then use various methods to redraw their congressional districts accordingly. In many states that task is delegated to the state legislature and governor. When both are controlled by the same party, as will be the case next year in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, redistricting often descends into gerrymandering, the process by which one party deliberately manipulates the map in order to put the other party at a disadvantage.
But fortunately, we’ve seen several substantive efforts at redistricting reform this year. Ridding our political system of gerrymandering is an issue that puts voters ahead of incumbents and benefits both Republicans and Democrats. Ensuring more fairness and competitiveness in our elections has been pushed by people across the political spectrum, from Tea Partiers to progressives, and from establishment Republicans to establishment Democrats. Because redistricting benefits the party in power, a party’s position on the issue often depends on their status.
Thankfully, voters in a growing number of states are pushing for changes that remove — or severely restrict — politics from redistricting. Four such states are California, Florida, Iowa, and Arizona:
CALIFORNIA — For the past ten years, California has been a model of the ill-effects of partisan redistricting. A decade ago, California legislators opted to draw a new map with the primary goal of protecting incumbent officeholders. It worked beyond belief. In the following election, every single incumbent in California’s House, Senate, and congressional delegation won reelection, taking an average 69 percent of the vote. Over the ensuing decade, none of the 120 legislative seats and just one of the state’s 53 congressional seats have switched parties.
This time around, California voters opted to draw the map themselves. In November, they overwhelmingly passed Proposition 20, which turned over congressional redistricting to a citizen commission. Out of 31,000 applicants, eight Californians — including a bookstore owner, an engineer, and an insurance agent — were chosen at random last week to serve. Those eight will soon choose another six citizens to finalize the 14-member commission, which will be evenly split between five Democrats, five Republicans, and four unaffiliated voters. Together, the commission will draw a new map using “strict, nonpartisan rules.” In order to become law, the new map must be supported by at least nine of the 14 members — three Democrats, three Republicans, and three unaffiliated voters.
FLORIDA — Like California, Florida’s current map is an egregious example of gerrymandering. A perpetual swing state, Florida backed President Bush in 2004 with 52 percent of the vote and President Obama in 2008 with 51 percent of the vote. However, thanks in large part to Republican gerrymandering in 2001, the GOP’s 55 percent of the state’s congressional vote in 2010 translated into capturing 75 percent of the state’s congressional seats.
Thankfully, Florida voters passed a redistricting reform initiative in November by a whopping 25 points, despite opposition from the state Republican Party, who stood to lose a new opportunity to gerrymander the state’s districts. Now, despite a Republican governor and large majorities in the state legislature, the GOP is barred from drawing congressional districts that “favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.”
IOWA — Iowa is a model for fair, nonpartisan redistricting. Rather than allowing legislators to pick which voters they want to represent, Iowa gives the power of redistricting to an independent body, the Legislative Services Agency. The LSA draws a map that uses specific formulas to keep districts as compact and contiguous as possible, while also preserving city and county boundaries. Where current legislators live is a factor that is prohibited from consideration. The map is then voted on in the state legislature, but if it’s rejected, the LSA is then charged with producing another map that the legislature may like less.
There are a few demographic aspects unique to Iowa that make the state’s redistricting restrictions less complicated and more apt to the type of reform it has implemented. For instance, as Stateline.org notes, “Iowa is so overwhelmingly white that it does not have to craft districts that favor minority voters, as required under the federal Voting Rights Act. Plus, Democrats and Republicans are spread pretty evenly throughout the state.” Still, Iowa’s approach is laudable and other states would do well to replicate its system.
ARIZONA — Like Iowa, Arizona employs an independent redistricting commission comprised of two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent. Instead of protecting incumbents and ensuring their reelection, the commission is charged with drawing as many competitive districts as possible while still creating compact, contiguous and fair borders. Unlike California, Arizona succeeded at prompting competitiveness in its congressional elections over the past decade. Nearly 40 percent of the state’s districts switched parties once, while a quarter switched parties twice. Rather than disenfranchising voters, Arizona has taken positive steps to ensure that its elections are representative and fair.