Redistricting is an unsexy process of defining the boundaries of political districts, but a necessary feature of a representative democracy. These maps need to be redrawn regularly because populations change: People move, give birth and die at different rates in different places. The aim of redistricting is to ensure that each vote cast carries the same weight as others. But redistricting has come under criticism recently: many people fear that politicians manipulate these maps to give themselves and their party an unfair advantage.
In one of the most high-profile legal challenges of late, Gill v. Whitford, 12 Democratic plaintiffs charged that the Republican-controlled Wisconsin legislature gerrymandered the district map it drew in 2011, giving the GOP an electoral advantage. A federal district court agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling that the map was gerrymandered, as evidenced by the “efficiency gap” test. But the U.S. Supreme Court turned away the plaintiffs, unanimously ruling that they lacked standing to bring this case in the first place.
But that’s just one case. Political maps regularly are challenged across the country. The Brennan Center for Justice tracks challenges and reports there are a dozen states with maps accused of having been gerrymandered. Meanwhile, Ohio voters this year approved a new redistricting system and voters in four more states — Colorado, Utah, Missouri and Michigan — are considering proposals to reform redistricting in next month’s general election.
The U.S. Constitution explicitly empowers the states to draw district lines — for congressional and state-level representation — and most states rely on their legislatures to do this. New maps are passed into law just like any other piece of legislation, requiring approval from a majority of both legislative chambers and the governor. When one political party controls the legislature and governor’s office at the same time, concern about partisan gerrymandering intensifies.
This is the case in Michigan, where a group called Voters Not Politicians successfully initiated a ballot proposal — Proposal 2 — to overhaul how the Great Lakes State redistricts. Proposal 2 would create a 13-member commission, made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and five people who swear under oath that they do not affiliate with either major party. People who fall into a number of categories would not be eligible to serve. They include anyone who has held a political office; worked for a politician or political party; registered as a lobbyist or worked for registered lobbyist. The parents, spouses and children of these people also would be ineligible.
Michigan’s Proposal 2 aims to take the partisanship out of redistricting. While certainly a worthy endeavor, it’s not clear that it’s actually possible to accomplish its intent. Can partisan influence be removed from a process that involves such high stakes for partisans?
There’s some evidence that redistricting reform efforts fail in their goals. Recent election results show the six states that use a special commission to draw maps don’t fare much better than others when tested for partisan gerrymandering. For example, state election results from 2016 suggested influence from gerrymandering in 12 states, based on the commonly used t-test statistic. And three of those states — California, Montana and Washington — used an independent commission to draw their maps.
Further, in 2011, ProPublica exposed several tactics Democrats in California used, all apparently legal, to game the process used by the independent commission, to get maps drawn in their favor. Ironically, the Democratic Party in California strongly opposed creating this commission when it was put before voters on the 2010 ballot.
Even the proposed plans for new independent commissions can’t guarantee nonpartisanship. Under Proposal 2 in Michigan, for example, a map can get final approval only if it receives at least some support from the commission’s independent members. But because the Democrats and Republicans on the commission are likely to vote in blocs, each rallying around a plan, these independent commissioners likely will end up voting on a plan that has full support from either the Republicans or the Democrats. So, a partisan plan may prevail no matter what is proposed.
Gerrymandering is a legitimate concern in a representative democracy, but the extent to which it harms our democratic system is up for debate. While completely removing partisanship from the redistricting process may prove impossible, clear guidelines and transparency could go a long way toward improving the process. No matter how they choose to draw maps, states should take advantage of the energy around this issue and work to improve their redistricting process.
Michael Van Beek is director of research at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonpartisan research and educational institute in Midland, Michigan.