With the election fast approaching, voters in several states are seeking to change how districts are drawn. Politicians responsible for drawing these districts in many states are fine with voters having to risk exposure to the coronavirus to face any real accountability at the ballot box.
Many voters across the country feel excluded from the electoral process because politicians have drawn these districts in a way to ensure they win reelection or keep their party in power. Voters have had enough. Voters in several states like Nevada, Oregon, Arkansas, and North Dakota, are trying to remove this partisan gamesmanship from the redistricting process. This makes sense because the players should not be the umpires.
This process starts with the 2020 census, which has the goal of counting everyone who is living in the United States as of three months ago. Once the bureau finishes this monumental task, the data is then given to states in 2021 to draw new lines for districts for Congress and state legislatures. That means that if democracy reform does not go through this year, then gerrymandered districts remain in place for the next decade.
In many states, the governor and legislature are responsible for drawing these new districts. Unsurprisingly, when one party has unilateral control over the map drawing, they typically go on to give themselves more and safer seats than they otherwise would if the process was fair.
One important solution to this unacceptable partisan gerrymandering is the creation of independent redistricting commissions. These are bodies that are separate from the state legislature tasked with drawing maps in a much more transparent process. The proposed Arkansas commission, for instance, would be composed of nine randomly selected citizens from the two major political parties along with independents and voters registered with other political parties. The commission would be tasked with drawing district maps that, among other things, have partisan fairness.
To get this measure on the ballot, supporters must collect the signatures of over 89,000 Arkansas residents. In normal times, this means standing outside of concerts, farmers markets, and other events with large crowds. The person collecting signatures, known as the circulator, has to witness each signature in their presence. The circulator then has to go to a notary to affirm they have witnessed all signatures being submitted. In the midst of the pandemic, events have been canceled and standing within six feet of large numbers of people is unsafe. Even worse is that some politicians have refused to make this electoral process safer for all of us.
I represented voters in Arkansas and North Dakota in federal court, and I argued that these groups and supporters should be able to express their fundamental right to support a ballot measure on redistricting safely. The North Dakota court disagreed while the Arkansas court decision removing the witnessing and notarization requirement has been paused pending an appeal. Arkansas politicians, in the midst of the pandemic that has rising coronavirus cases, argue that supporters have not been burdened. They have looked at the voters and simply shrugged their shoulders.
The fight is far from over. Grassroots organizations in Arkansas and North Dakota have submitted over 100,000 signatures and 36,000 signatures, respectively, to get independent redistricting commissions on the ballot in November. This reflects what we already know, which is that voters on both sides of the aisle overwhelmingly prefer fair redistricting. Politicians, however, are generally reluctant to give up their power. They have shown so many times that they would rather protect their ability to gerrymander than allow voters in states to safely support democracy reform.
Chris Lamar is legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington.