Redistricting commissions descend into political warfare

All across the country, commissions that were intended to make the redistricting process more transparent and nonpartisan have become fraught with political intrigue, finger-pointing and accusations of bad faith.

In Virginia, a commission made up of both citizens and legislators gave up on their efforts to redraw state legislative boundaries, punting to the state Supreme Court before even proposing a final version to debate.

In Michigan, commissioners approved a state Senate map at a meeting in which four of 13 commissioners were absent and those present voted to suspend the rules. The commission angered some Democrats and anti-gerrymandering advocates in August, when it voted to hire a law firm with ties to Republicans to defend its eventual maps in court.

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In Colorado, commissioners agreed on new congressional district boundaries in a bipartisan vote and were promptly sued by Hispanic advocacy groups who said the maps dilute Hispanic voters’ political strength. In April, the commission’s chairman was removed from a leadership position after posting conspiracy theories on social media that questioned the outcome of the 2020 elections.

And in Ohio, a commission designed to give both statewide officeholders and legislators control over the process created map lines that so inordinately favored Republicans that the American Civil Liberties Union and national Democrats have filed suit.

Advocates of the commission process say the new panels are making at least some progress that would not have been possible if legislatures had maintained control of redistricting — Virginia’s commission is preparing votes on a congressional district map, Michigan has moved to the congressional process too and Colorado’s map is now before the state Supreme Court, as envisioned under the law that created the commission.

“It hasn’t always been pretty, but the citizenry has gotten to see the sausage get made,” said Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021, the group that led the design of the constitutional amendment that created Virginia’s panel.

Ten states give commissions — either independent or with input from legislators — the power to draw congressional district lines. Five more rely on commissions to provide some form of advice that legislators can either heed or dismiss. Another three, including Ohio, use commissions as backups in case the legislature cannot agree to a solution.

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Redistricting reformers have pushed other states to adopt models similar to some of the early pioneers, states like Washington and New Jersey. No two commission states have identical structures, though: Washington districts are drawn by the agreement of four partisans, two Democrats and two Republicans appointed by state legislative caucuses, and a fifth independent member who typically acts as peacemaker. New Jersey’s commission is made up of members appointed by legislative leaders who have historically tussled over the tie-breaking vote.

The states that have adopted redistricting commissions in the last decade have tried to craft their own ideals. In Michigan, the secretary of state takes applications, then draws a total of 14 names out of a hat after narrowing the field down to 60 partisans from both sides and 80 from a pool of unaffiliated voters.

“We’ve always been adamant from Day One that we wanted to set up a nonpartisan process that was transparent where people from communities of interest would come and testify and the data they were providing for the commission served as the foundation for their work,” said Nancy Wang, executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the Michigan-based group behind her state’s new commission. “Redistricting is a political process. We set it up so that it was nonpartisan and this commission had to rule by consensus. They had to come together across party lines.”

Virginia divides its commission between private citizens and legislators. Colorado gives the power to choose its commission to a panel of three retired appeals court judges or state Supreme Court justices. In both states, reformers are considering the steps they need to take in the coming decade to make for a smoother, less partisan process.

“There are obviously challenges with a hybrid commission, half politician-half citizen. We knew going into this that this was an experiment. As we are learning through this process, we are learning that maybe this is not a format that works well,” said Suzanne Almeida, a redistricting expert at Common Cause who monitors Virginia’s process. “There is a lot more work to be done.”

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The reform advocates hope to advance commissions in more new states moving forward. A New Mexico panel crafted a new advisory commission, albeit over the skepticism of state House Speaker Brian Egolf (D), who drew criticism for openly plotting to draw a more favorable map for his side.

Other advocates said the tumult on some commissions will trigger prearranged backup plans that would have the courts draw lines. In Virginia, the commission’s impasse over boundary lines will throw power to the state Supreme Court.

“I’m still confident that we’re going to get fair maps out of the courts, and I think it will still be a heck of a lot better than the problem that everyone agreed on, which is legislators drawing their own maps without transparency,” White said.