CNN: A fair maps success story or ‘multi-layered stages of Dante’s Hell’? Where redistricting commissions worked — and didn’t work — this cycle
06.18.2022 / By Tierney Sneed
CNN: A fair maps success story or 'multi-layered stages of Dante's Hell'? Where redistricting commissions worked -- and didn't work -- this cycle
(CNN)With political power on the line, state redistricting commissions have been held up by voter advocates as a way to get congressional districts that are more reflective of the communities that live in them. But as states redrew the political maps that will shape elections for the next decade, those that set up commissions didn’t necessarily produce fairer redistricting plans.
The latest round of legislative map-drawing, produced from 2020 census data, featured the input of commissions in more than a dozen states, with the use of commissions expanding since the previous decennial cycle. A 2019 Supreme Court decision that said federal courts could not police extreme gerrymanders made such commissions a critical tool for voter advocates.
The issue: Not all redistricting commissions are created equally. Only some of the commissions set up for the 2020 cycle were truly independent, and how they were designed affected how functional — or dysfunctional — they were. …
Whether a supposedly independent redistricting commission was truly independent depended on who got the final say about the maps it put forward.
In four states, advisory commissions draw draft congressional maps, but it’s ultimately up to the state legislature whether the proposed maps will be adopted. Only Maine’s legislature did so.
“Sadly, most of those state legislatures essentially disregarded the good work of the advisory commissions,” said Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director at the voting rights organization Common Cause. Republicans in New Mexico accused the Democratic-controlled legislature of largely ignoring the work of its advisory citizen commission, though a GOP lawsuit was unsuccessful in blocking the congressional plan the legislature adopted. And in Utah, where the advisory commission’s congressional and state district plans were eschewed by the state lawmakers, similar litigation is underway. …
During the Colorado commissioner selection process, lawmakers got to narrow the pool of potential citizens members, and “to some extent, the commissioners did wear their partisan hats just a little bit more actively,” Feng said.
“On certain key issues, then, sometimes those commissioners will divide along partisan lines or they’ll get into a very, very heated arguments with each other along partisan lines,” Feng said. …
A silver lining of the dysfunction around Virginia’s commission is that the state Supreme Court had the opportunity to remedy the stalemate, and ultimately produced maps more competitive for Republicans than the old plans.
“One of the upsides, even when you have a lousy commission, is that you have created enough of a record for the court to review and be able to create some alternative that is fair,” Feng said. …
The court battle has gotten ugliest in Ohio, where voters will be casting ballots in congressional districts that the state Supreme Court says were unconstitutionally drawn.
Feng pointed to an “escape hatch” the legislature created in the competing proposal it put forward for creating a commission, where “even if a partisan or racial gerrymander has been found, a court may not impose a remedy by itself.”
“It has to go back to the legislature to be drawn,” Feng said. “And so that circular, multi-layered stages of Dante’s Hell has been imposed on Ohio.”