During the 2018 midterm elections, many Americans were focused on the big picture: who would control the House and Senate, which areas of the country swung from the previous cycle, and the many major upsets that are inevitable in any election. What fewer people paid attention to, however, was a nationwide movement that has been rapidly gaining steam: the push for independent redistricting commissions. In 2018, voters in three states – Colorado, Michigan, and Utah – approved ballot initiatives creating independent redistricting commissions that will create the district lines that candidates will run in.
On paper, independent commissions seem like the perfect solution to gerrymandering. Independent commissions take away the ability of politicians to draw their own districts and instead place control over redistricting into an unelected body chosen for the sole purpose of creating new maps. In most systems, this commission has an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, with the balance of power resting in the hands of anywhere from one to five independent members. The maps the commission creates are generally binding and are ostensibly supposed to focus on communities of interest, county integrity, compactness, and fairness. However, in practice these commissions have actually created new problems.
Arizona voters passed Proposition 106 in 2000, creating a five-member independent redistricting commission responsible for drawing congressional and state legislative lines. Because this commission only has five members and the two parties will rarely agree on anything, the lone independent has nearly complete control over the process. In the 2010 cycle, the independent was Colleen Mathis. Despite the Arizona Constitution placing “political competitiveness” as the lowest of the six listed priorities for redistricting, Mathis decided it was the single-most important factor. With both Democratic commissioners on her side, her map was approved for the 2012 elections.
A Washington Post analysis gave it the map a 70/100 (with 0 being the least gerrymandered and 100 being the most gerrymandered), a similar score to Republican gerrymanders in Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Republicans were packed into AZ-04 and AZ-05, allowing AZ-01 to snake from Flagstaff to the southern suburbs of Phoenix. News outlets immediately identified this map as a very favorable one for Democrats, and these predictions proved to be accurate when Republicans won only four of the state’s nine seats in 2012 despite winning the popular vote by eight percentage points.
The emphasis on competitive districts also meant that the median seats in the state, AZ-01 and AZ-02, were much more Democratic than the state itself; although Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney had won the state by nine percentage points, AZ-01 and AZ-02 only backed him by two. It took Republicans winning the popular vote by 18 percentage points in 2014 to flip AZ-02, and that was only by a mere 161 votes. Moreover, at the state legislative level, Mathis abused population variance to pack and overpopulate Republican seats, ensuring more Democrats could be elected.
The failure of the Arizona commission demonstrates a major flaw in the independent commission strategy: by giving redistricting power to a panel of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats, there is no way for voters to correct an unfair map or punish bad actions. While bad politicians can be voted out, Mathis never faced any consequences for her actions.
In 2010, California voters across the political spectrum revolted against decades of relentless gerrymandering by giving an independent commission the authority to draw congressional maps. The California redistricting reform movement, led by popular moderate Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a sincere effort from people on both sides of the aisle to shake up Sacramento and create a more representative government. Unfortunately, a 2011 report from ProPublica revealed that the commission’s decisions had been covertly influenced by lobbying groups.
The commission, comprised mainly of ordinary Californians, was tasked with drawing congressional maps primarily based on communities of interest – that is, grouping cities or counties together based on the common traits they all share. Republicans decided to respect the commission’s work and sat out the process, but state and national Democratic groups immediately went to work to influence the process. According to the ProPublica report, Democrats created fake lobbying groups and disguised them as community organizations. These groups were successfully able to fool the commission into passing maps favorable to incumbent Democratic politicians. This came at the expense of real community groups and ethnic minorities, who saw their hopes for a fair process come crashing to the ground.
The failure of the California commission shows that by handing redistricting authority to a group of ordinary people who aren’t necessarily connected to politics, it can actually become easier for government to be subverted by special interests.
Is Ohio the solution?
Since the 2010 redistricting process, the crucial swing state of Ohio has had one of the nation’s worst congressional gerrymanders; in the most recent house elections in 2018, Republicans won 12 of the state’s 16 house seats despite only winning the popular vote by five percentage points.
Voters were fed up with this situation, and even politicians began to realize that a solution to gerrymandering needed to be found. Working together across party lines, Republicans and Democrats crafted a unique rules-based solution to gerrymandering and voters overwhelmingly approved it at the ballot box. So how does the Ohio model work? The major change is that an objective set of criteria must be met for a map to be legal; county splits are limited, major cities like Cincinnati and Cleveland have to remain intact, and the Voting Rights Act mandate for minority representation must be respected. These objective standards severely limit the potential for gerrymandering by ensuring a baseline level of compactness that all maps must meet.
Additionally, while the legislature retains the right to draw new congressional maps, a three-fifths vote is required to pass them, and that must include at least half the members of the minority party. If the legislature is unable to agree, a seven-member commission comprised of three popularly-elected statewide elected officers (the governor, auditor, secretary of state) and two legislators from each party draw the maps instead. A majority of the commission is needed to approve the map at this point, and at least two minority party members must agree.
There are additional contingencies to be used if this commission cannot agree, but ordinarily the first two options should be sufficient to create a fair map – and most importantly, voters are given a strong influence in the process because all of the people who draw the maps are elected by the people, some of which come from statewide offices immune to gerrymandering.
To be sure, no redistricting system is perfect, and even the Ohio model has flaws. However, the combination of an objective standard and politically accountable members means that maps will be fairer while maintaining the inherent check that voters have on politicians, and that’s what matters most. Rather than a laser-eyed focus on the flawed model of independent commissions, good-government advocates would be wise to look at Ohio as a model of fairness that can appeal to both sides of the aisle.