Which way for independent redistricting

December 4, 2023

Summary:

  • North Carolina’s redistricting process is plainly broken
  • Multiple other states have experimented with different solutions for independent redistricting
  • Anti-gerrymandering reformers have many better options to choose from

 

With the North Carolina General Assembly reorganized under yet another partisan gerrymander, few could blame supporters of independent redistricting reform for feeling discouraged. There has been effectively no traction in the legislature for reform of North Carolina’s redistricting process for more than a decade. In a noticeable shift since the early 2010s, when Republican leaders generally denied engaging in gerrymandering, today the tone is quite different. Republican leaders now openly admit – even boast about – the effectiveness of their partisan gerrymandering.

Yet as North Carolina continues its inexorable political realignment, anti-gerrymandering reform is picking up steam at the state level around the country. This poses a question to reform-minded North Carolinians: what should redistricting reform actually look like, when the opportunity arises?

There are myriad ways of drawing better, fairer and more representative election maps that are clearly superior to today’s system. Each of them has advantages, as well as drawbacks. Today, we examine three specific examples to weight their merits.

Virginia

In 2019, after courts struck down the Republican gerrymander of the Commonwealth’s legislative maps, Democrats won control of both chambers of the Virginia state legislature for the first time in 25 years. Rather than retaliating with their own partisan gerrymander, Virginia Democrats instead passed an independent redistricting reform amendment to the Commonwealth’s constitution. Voters approved that amendment in the subsequent 2020 election, enshrining it in law.

Virginia set up a 16-member commission comprised of 8 sitting legislators and 8 non-legislators. The legislature’s two largest parties select the legislator members, and the 8 non-legislator members are selected by a panel of retired circuit judges from a list submitted by legislative leaders. Maps for Congressional districts, the State Senate and House must each be passed by 12 of the 16 members and approved by the legislature, which cannot amend them. If the legislature does not approve a map passed by the commission, it falls to the state Supreme Court to enact one.

This cumbersome process wound up not working very well. The legislature wound up rejecting both maps the Virginia Redistricting Commission came up with, forcing the state Supreme Court to take up the issue. While both parties disliked the process, both Republican and Democratic leaders eventually admitted that the resulting maps were “pretty fair” and highly competitive. But the process could have been designed with much greater independence from the legislature.

California

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC) has been active since 2010. It was created by the voter-initiated Proposition 11, which passed in 2008. Support for the proposition was highly bipartisan: both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Governor Gray Davis supported the measure, and though passed by a very small margin.

The CRC is comprised of 14 members: 5 Republicans, 5 Democrats, and 4 of neither party. Members of the public are invited to apply, and a panel of state auditors assembles 60 applications (20 Republican, 20 Democratic, and 20 unaffiliated). Both the majority and minority leaders of the legislature are then permitted to remove a small number of them, and the auditors select 8 from those remaining. Those 8 commissioners then select the next 6 from the pool of applications. Importantly, no commission member, nor their immediate family, may have been a candidate for office, registered lobbyist, member of party leadership, political staff or a donor of $2,000 or more to an elected candidate for the previous 10 years.

The CRC has broadly been praised for producing fair, highly competitive maps. California’s politics, unlike those in Virginia (or for that matter North Carolina), are utterly dominated by one party, in their case Democrats, so drawing competitive districts can be a challenge. Nevertheless, the CRC has performed its job enviably.

Michigan

The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) is a product of the voter-initiated Proposition 2 in 2018, which Michigan voters approved by a large margin. The MICRC employs arguably the most “independent” process of all.

First, the Secretary of State mails out 10,000 applications, to voters selected at random. All voters are also allowed to apply themselves. The Secretary of State collects the applications and selects 200 at random – 100 from the random mailings, 100 from self-applications – with 30% being Republican, 30% being Democratic, and 40% Unaffiliated. Legislative leaders are allowed to strike a small number of these applications, and then from those remaining, 13 commissioners are selected at random, with 4 Republicans, 4 Democrats and 5 Unaffiliated voters. Like in California, neither commissioners nor their immediate family may have been a candidate for elected office within 6 years, or involved in a partisan political campaign or PAC, or been a lobbyist.

Though Michigan Republicans first sued to overturn the independent redistricting commission itself, and then to overturn the maps it produced, neither challenge was successful. The commission’s maps have been shown to be highly competitive, as one would expect in a politically close state: the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project has rated its Congressional and legislative maps very highly. The Michigan model has been hailed as a “national model” that other states could follow.

North Carolina

This year, Democrats in North Carolina’s legislature re-filed their independent redistricting reform bill. This bill combined many elements of Michigan and California’s models: randomized applications sent to voters, barring active politicos from eligibility, and no role in drawing maps whatsoever for the legislature itself. It is, altogether, a redistricting approach built on best practices. As usual, Republican leaders ensured that the bill did not even receive a committee hearing.

Of course, no model is perfect. Redistricting is an inherently political process, after all: as they say, you cannot take the politics out of politics. But each of these different models is a clear improvement over North Carolina’s plainly broken system. Anti-gerrymandering reformers have many options to choose from. But the first step is always the same, and always the most formidable: prioritizing voters’ interests over those of politicians.

Help build progress for North Carolina.

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