The redistricting cycle for the 2020s has seen more redistricting commissions used than ever before. Some see this as a big step forward, taking away the power to draw lines from politicians. Others see this shift as giving this power to people who know too little and are too easily manipulated about the process. I don’t think either of these ways of thinking are fully accurate. In fact, it depends from state to state how well their commission did.
Did any Commission Truly Fail?
Really only one apparent “independent” commission failed at its job: Virginia. Virginia’s apparent independent commission was a true failure. Politicians put on the commission seemed totally uninterested in completing its goal. Republicans never seemed willing to negotiate, and Democrats seemed dead-set on creating the best incumbent protection map they could.
All this led to infighting, backroom talk and more infighting. The commission collapsed and the Supreme Court took over the drawing of the maps. That process turned out well. The Supreme Court appointed two special masters who churned out three fair maps. However, that is not the success of a commission. That is the success of the Supreme Court only. Virginia failed, and if there are no changes by 2030 to the process, they will fail again.
Which Commissions were Just Okay?
Every other commission functioned properly. None of them were perfect, but they did their job and got a map. However, not every commission produced a necessarily fair map. California created a slight Democratic gerrymander, while most would argue that Iowa is a slight Republican gerrymander. Neither are perfect examples of a good commission. Iowa’s can be influenced by politicians, and California’s has been proven in each of the last two cycles that it can be manipulated to produce Democratic-leaning maps.
New Jersey’s isn’t great either, allowing for little deals to be done and basically forcing the independent voice to choose between the two parties. These commissions worked in that they did their jobs. They got a map done without judicial interference being necessary (though we may have to wait and see with New Jersey). Even ones like Colorado, where they had a citizen commission that was easily manipulated and were incredibly reactionary, whey were able to get a fair map done, but one that took a lot of pain to get there.
The same could be said for Washington, which almost failed to put a map together at the necessary date. That would have thrown the process to the Washington Supreme Court, which would have been again, a failure. However the court showed some mercy, and even though the proposed maps were slightly late, the commission maps are the ones we’ll see for the next decade.
In the end, two states commissions stood out to me as the blueprint for the future, Arizona’s and Michigan’s.
Why Michigan and Arizona Worked so Well
In my opinion, the Commissions that worked best came from Michigan and Arizona. Both states produced maps that are not just composite wise fair, but are also maps that will have continued competitive seats throughout the next decade.
Each had a different style of getting to this goal. Arizona has a panel of five, with two Republicans, two Democrats, and a chair that is supposed to be non-partisan. This part of Arizona’s commission is its biggest weak point, and it did fail in 2011 when reapportionment was required then. However, this year’s chair, Erika Neuberg, came in wanting to have a map everyone could agree on. She was strong-willed in avoiding the 3-2 votes that hampered the last cycle.
Neuberg succeeded, and was able to get a fair and competitive map passed with unanimous support.
Michigan may have honestly been the best commission this year. The citizen commission did have some early growing pains, and there are legitimate criticisms on whether they followed VRA law in the state house map. But, in the end Michigan arguably was the best commission for maps this cycle.
They had an open and clear process, one that the public could comment on and see clearly what was going on. They produced maps that are fair from a partisan perspective and have a good amount of competitive seats. The congressional map alone may end up having five seats that are considered competitive by the time we get to Election Day 2022. That’s a good thing to have and to see.
The process on which they decided their final map was good too. They had three clear options, each with their own differences that were again, open to the public for comment. That allowed them to pass what I do think was the best map possible of the options.
If states want to go more towards a commission model for redistricting, and they should, Arizona and Michigan are the best starting points for examples. If more states can act like them, we will see fairer and more competitive maps across the country in the future.