Americans are participating in redistricting like never before

The number of Americans who have engaged with state legislatures and independent commissions working to redraw political boundary lines in the decennial redistricting process has hit vertiginous new heights as voters inundate mapmakers with proposals, suggestions and objections.

In Washington state, the independent redistricting commission has received input from about 7,000 people, either through emailed comments or participation in virtual town hall meetings, a threefold increase compared to the last redistricting process a decade ago. 

Of those, state residents have submitted 1,300 proposed maps of their own. Seventy of those maps have qualified as third-party recommendations that commissioners will consider.

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In California, where the independent redistricting commission still has six weeks to go before a deadline to finalize new district maps, more than 13,000 comments have been submitted. In the entirety of the last three-month redistricting process, California’s commission received about 20,000 comments and suggestions.

In Michigan, 9,000 people applied to sit on a new redistricting commission, and those who were chosen have received more than 10,000 comments already, a decade after the legislature did not accept comments at all. The website Utah residents can use to submit comments on proposed district maps was so overwhelmed earlier this week that the server crashed.  

“It’s very clear that there is a lot of public engagement everywhere,” said Sam Wang, who heads the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a nonpartisan group that tracks and monitors redistricting efforts across the nation. “Citizens are much more engaged than before.” 

Part of that engagement stems from the outcry over maps drawn a decade ago, after the 2010 Republican romp that handed the GOP control of state legislatures tasked with drawing new lines. The maps those legislatures drew spurred a new movement of redistricting reformers who advocated for independent commissions or guardrails that would govern the mapmaking process.

Now that the redistricting process has begun, many of those groups have turned to activism to make sure their supporters are engaged. 

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“Folks need to prepare to pay close attention to the process this time around,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, who runs the Equal Ground Education Fund, a Florida group that advocates for redistricting reform. “This legislative session, leaders of the reapportioned committee in both the House and the Senate started off by pledging to be open and honest. And we’re simply going to take their word on that and hold their feet to the fire.”

Burney-Clark’s group has one staffer and seven fellows dedicated to training voters on best practices when submitting testimony and comments, or when speaking before legislators.

In Michigan, Voters Not Politicians, a group that backed a ballot measure creating the new independent redistricting committee, has given hundreds of presentations to groups as diverse as the Farm Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce and book clubs with only a few members, said Nancy Wang, its executive director.

“We’ve gone to basically every level of government. We’ve reached out to local clerks and municipalities,” Wang said in an interview. “The only way the commission can understand what communities of interest are is through feedback from the community.” 

The transparency of the redistricting process has been aided, too, by the widespread availability of open-source redistricting software. Within minutes of a legislature releasing a proposed map, Democratic and Republican partisans will surge to Dave’s Redistricting App, the most popular entrant in the field, to measure the proposal’s partisan and demographic characteristics. 

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Dave Bradlee, the website’s founder, said in an email the site had registered 10,000 unique users in the month of October, significantly higher than a few months ago. Users started 153,000 maps on the site in October, beating the previous record by more than 20,000, Bradlee said.

The increased engagement by the public does not always guarantee that legislators are listening, however. 

In Utah, state legislators proposed carving up Salt Lake County into all four of the state’s new U.S. House districts, cracking the state’s only reliable bastion of Democratic voters between four strongly Republican districts. Salt Lake residents bombarded the redistricting comment site to voice their objections, leading to the crash.

Little Rock residents objected to an Arkansas plan to split the city between three of the state’s four U.S. House districts, though Republicans approved the plan anyway. Gov. Asa HutchinsonAsa HutchinsonGOP governor says McCarthy should condemn Boebert's anti-Muslim remarks Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist Arkansas opens boosters to all adults MORE (R) allowed the map to become law without his signature, suggesting at a press conference that he had sympathy for those who objected. 

“This will enable those who wish to challenge the redistricting plan in court to do so,” he said, all but inviting the inevitable lawsuit.

Democrats, who control the redistricting process in fewer states than Republicans, see the public engagement phase as a way to lay the groundwork for coming legal challenges in other states.

“You’re seeing a heightened awareness and engagement from the public because they’ve lived under gerrymandered maps for a decade, and they’ve seen the detrimental effect those maps have had on governing and on policy,” said Kelly Ward, who heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the party’s chief redistricting clearinghouse. “It’s a really important part of the process, and it’s exciting to see how many people are showing up to advocate for their communities.” 

In some states, advocates see the new levels of engagement as a way to influence a process once conducted entirely in smoke-filled back rooms. 

“I’m hoping people will continue to weigh in,” Wang, the Michigan Voters Not Politicians executive director, said. “What this commission has showed is they are listening, they have been very responsive.”