Gerrymandering opponents turn to ballot initiatives to redraw lines

Gerrymandering opponents turn to ballot initiatives to redraw lines
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Advocates of radically overhauling partisan gerrymandering are increasingly looking to ballot initiatives to reform the redistricting process, in hopes of circumventing recalcitrant legislatures.

Supporters of a proposal to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission in Michigan say they will turn in more than 400,000 signatures by the end of the year. They need 315,000 of those signatures to be valid in order to qualify for next year’s ballot.

In Ohio, a coalition of organizations is in the process of collecting the 305,591 valid signatures they need to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot.


And in Colorado, another coalition plans two ballot initiatives — one that would reform congressional redistricting, and another to reform legislative redistricting.

Efforts to get initiatives or constitutional amendments on the ballot are underway in Missouri, South Dakota and Utah. 

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson (R) has created a task force to study a nonpartisan redistricting plan, which could turn into a ballot drive as well. Bipartisan study groups of legislators in Maryland, Indiana and Louisiana are all taking initial steps toward formulating a proposal.

Each initiative is unique to its own state — Utah’s and Ohio’s would each create a seven-member commission, South Dakota’s a nine-member commission, and Missouri’s plan would use statistical modeling for new district lines. 

But all would strip the power to draw favorable district lines, the practice known as gerrymandering, from partisan legislatures who zealously guard their ability to craft preferred terrain.

“The thinking has been — it’s easier to get this done through initiatives than through legislatures,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “Lawmakers are loathe to give up the power to draw boundaries, particularly their own boundaries.”

The good-government groups that back reform hope to increase competition in legislative and congressional elections. Democrats who support reforms believe a less partisan process would bolster their hopes of reclaiming control of the House of Representatives in the next decade.

Several national redistricting measures have been proposed in Congress, though none have gained traction. Democrats, stung by a redistricting process that left them battling Republican-friendly maps in dozens of states, have united around a redistricting reform project spearheaded by former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderHolder, Yates lead letter backing Biden pick for Civil Rights Division at DOJ Senate panel dukes it out over voting rights Progressive groups announce M voting rights effort MORE

That effort, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, has yet to formally support any of the current measures circulating today. But Kelly Ward, the group’s executive director, said they would weigh in when appropriate.

“We fully intend to support ballot initiatives that reform the process in the states that make the redistricting process more fair,” Ward said in an interview.

Ward said her group is evaluating the ballot measures, which are by necessity different in each state.

“Not all reforms are created equal, and what works in one state might not work in another state,” Ward said. “We look at it from a customized, state-by-state approach.”

Many of the initiatives are using California as a model given passage in 2010 of Proposition 20. That initiative, funded by conservative billionaire Charles Munger, gave the power to redraw district lines to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, a group of 14 members — five Republicans, five Democrats and four independents.

The California measure required the commission to draw districts that united so-called communities of interest, whether those are cities or counties. Several of the proposed initiatives have similar requirements: The Ohio proposal would require a commission to limit the number of counties that are divided between districts, as does a legislative proposal that has earned bipartisan support in Pennsylvania’s legislature.

California was also the first state to give independents a voice in the process, a practice several of the new initiatives are emulating. 

Other states are also considering giving each side the power to veto unfavorable maps, a tool to ensure compromise and competition.

Under that system, “you can’t approve a map wholly over the objections of the other party, and that in itself tends to produce fairer maps,” said Li, of the Brennan Center.

Others are looking to Arizona, where voters approved a redistricting commission in 2000. The Supreme Court upheld that commission, which values competitiveness as a desirable quality when drawing new maps, in 2015.

Li said many states are now considering symmetry, or ensuring that a party wins a share of seats proportionate to their statewide vote total, in drawing new districts. That would target states like Virginia, where Republicans hold seven of 11 congressional districts even though Democrats have won most recent statewide elections.