Voter groups try to sideline politicians as states redraw district maps

Senators Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson, right, review historical maps during The Senate Redistricting Committee for the 2016 Extra Session in the Legislative Office Building at the N.C. General Assembly on Tuesday, February 16, 2016.
Senators Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson, right, review historical maps during The Senate Redistricting Committee for the 2016 Extra Session in the Legislative Office Building at the N.C. General Assembly on Tuesday, February 16, 2016. The News & Observer

After 33 public hearings in 33 days, Katie Fahey knew exactly what Michigan voters wanted to change about the way their political districts are drawn.

"They wanted transparency. They wanted the curtain pulled back. And they didn't want lobbyists or currently elected officials to be anywhere near the process,” she said.

Fahey is president of a group — Voters Not Politicians — that’s seeking 315,000 signatures to force a vote on setting up an independent commission to oversee the politically fraught process of redistricting in Michigan. If she succeeds, Michigan would join a small group of states where registered voters — not legislatures or panels stacked with politicians — are in charge of drawing boundaries for congressional districts.

As the Supreme Court prepares for arguments in October on partisan gerrymandering, increasing numbers of Democrats, Republicans and voting rights groups are pushing states to bring more transparency and fairness to the secretive and highly political exercise of redistricting.

Reformers argue that citizen commissions would take much of the politics out of redistricting, removing partisan pressure to create districts that favor incumbents and in turn making elections more competitive and politicians more accountable to their constituents.

Unsurprisingly, many current office holders aren’t on board.

Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.

In North Carolina, which has some of the nation’s most gerrymandered districts, Republican state representative David Lewis cited Yale University research that found political boundaries drawn by independent commissions were no more competitive than those crafted by politicians.

“Redistricting is and always will be an inherently political process, and it is worth noting that they don’t always produce the results people seek from them,” Lewis told McClatchy.

To date, only Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington have independent redistricting commissions with no elected officials. Similar proposals have been floated in Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Iowa, New York and Maine have commissions that draw districts – but they must be approved by the state legislature.

In 2016, South Dakota voted down a ballot initiative to create an independent commission. The same year, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a similar ballot initiative drive, ruling a petition with 40,000 signatures was invalid.

As momentum to overhaul the system builds, parties in power from both red and blue states are resisting calls for change – and with good reason. The party that controls the state legislature also controls the redistricting process and typically creates districts with safe majorities of their likely voters.

Minority party voters, on the other hand, are often spread strategically into several districts to dilute their influence, or conveniently clustered into a few districts, which can limit their impact. Both tactics, known as “cracking” and “packing” can allow the party in power to hold on to more seats.

Voting rights groups say many district boundaries have been so manipulated, or gerrymandered, along party lines that competitive elections are nearly impossible.

Consider that in Georgia, where Republicans control nearly two-thirds of the state House, only 31 of 180 state House races had a Democratic and Republican candidate in 2016. The other 149 districts – 83 percent – went uncontested, a national high.

Only 34 of 160 state House districts had contested races in Massachusetts, where Democrats control nearly 80 percent of the state House.

With little concern about electoral challenges, politicians can be emboldened to back policies that lack public support. That can leave voters feeling their ballots don’t really count, which can diminish public trust and participation in the electoral process.

“My concern with partisan gerrymanders isn’t about competitiveness,” said Ruth Greenwood, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. “It’s about a misalignment between voters and their legislators.”

In the upcoming Supreme Court Case, Gill v. Whitford, the court will decide whether Republicans in Wisconsin went too far in drawing political districts that favored GOP candidates. After leading Wisconsin’s redistricting efforts in 2011, Republicans won 60 percent of state Assembly seats in 2012 after garnering just 49 percent of statewide votes.

The issue of partisan gerrymandering has been around for decades and both parties have willingly indulged.

But after routing Democrats in the 2010 elections, Republicans nationwide used new 2010 census data along with mapping technology to craft favorable political districts at the expense of Democratic voters.

The national redistricting effort, dubbed “Operation REDMAP,” helped Republicans capture more seats in Congress and in state-level races in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Today,Republicans control both state legislative chambers in 31 states, while Democrats lead both chambers in just 12 states.

But even Democrats oppose non-partisan redistricting where they have a political advantage.

Volunteers in Illinois collected nearly 500,000 signatures last year before their petition for a redistricting commission was rejected by a state court judge. Longtime Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, a Democrat, opposed the effort, saying districts drawn by an independent commission might hurt minority representation.

In North Carolina, state representative Lewis chairs the House rules committee, which hasn’t taken any action on a bipartisan bill with 39 co-sponsors that would put nonpartisan legislative staff in charge of the state’s redistricting. The bill was introduced in February.

“Every line that is drawn on a map has political implications and it is my goal that with what little discretion is allowed in the process, I will be transparent in my decision making, not dishonest and self-serving under a non-partisan guise,” Lewis wrote.

But the Campaign Legal Center reported this week that court-ordered GOP House and Senate proposals to redraw several gerrymandered districts were highly problematic.

Under both plans, Republicans would have to garner roughly 46 percent of the statewide vote in order to secure a GOP majority in the House. Democrats would need over 55 percent to do the same, the center reported.

"This is asymmetrical, and evidences a severe bias in favor of Republican voters," wrote Greenwood, who is also co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the upcoming Supreme Court case.