Like the shape of many congressional districts, the process of redistricting is a complex one. There are currently five different systems implemented across the country to determine how the lines of districts are drawn, each with their own level of democratic participation. When looking at how to make government more accountable and restore power to voters, it is important to examine how drawing lines on a map fits into it all.
Last week the Supreme Court decided in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission that Arizona’s independent redistricting commission was legal; a win for those wanting to wrest the ability to draw district lines from the state legislatures. Currently, redistricting is controlled by state legislatures in forty-two states, while only six states have independent redistricting commissions. In addition, some states also have advisory commissions to assist state legislatures, backup commissions to draw the lines if the legislature cannot pass a plan, or bipartisan politician commissions in which elected officials can be selected to redistrict. State legislators’ control over redistricting in a majority of states remains a major obstacle to achieving democratic ideals.
Granting state legislatures the power to determine whose votes are likely to make a difference allows them to manipulate elections in their favor. For example, if Party A has a majority in the state legislature, they can draw the districts so that there is a majority of Party A voters in as many districts as possible, thereby making it that much harder for anybody from Party B to get elected. Another problem frequently appearing in states where legislatures control redistricting is minority vote dilution, or districts being shaped to weaken the voting strength of minorities. While it is illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there is substantial evidence that legislators pack minority voters into very few districts to limit their influence in surrounding districts or divide them into many districts to limit their influence in any one of them. These issues act to weaken the voting power of all citizens, yet independent redistricting commissions can help to change that.
Independent redistricting commissions are designed to be impartial and nonpartisan. For example, Arizona’s recently upheld commission has five members: two Republicans, two Democrats, and one independent. Additionally, commission members are not elected officials, so they have less of a need to try and rally votes in their own favor. Taking control of redistricting out of the hands of the state legislature ensures a more level playing field for voters and amplifies their voice in the democratic process. A recent New York Times article revealed that elections in districts drawn by independent redistricting commissions are actually more competitive and lead to more tossups. Benefits like these have already been seen in the six states that have implemented these commissions, and the Supreme Court’s recent ruling provides a sense of legitimacy to this pro-voter practice.
At least six states are considering creating independent redistricting commissions. This is a good sign for voters, as it is a chance to ensure that their vote will truly count whenever they drop it in the ballot box. The voters should be able to choose who their representatives are, but representatives are choosing their voters under the current system. Redistricting is not a widely talked about concept, but if voters want to regain their influence in the democratic process, they should start talking about it now.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Voting and Elections