When voters in some states created new commissions to handle the politically thorny process of redistricting, the hope was that the bipartisan panelists could work together to draw new voting districts free of partisan gerrymandering.
Instead, cooperation has proved elusive.
In New York, Ohio and Virginia, commissions meeting for the first time this year have splintered into partisan camps to craft competing redistricting maps based on 2020 census data. The divisions have disappointed some activists who supported the reforms and highlighted how difficult it can be to purge politics from the once-a-decade process of realigning boundaries for U.S. House and state legislative seats.
As a result, the new state House and Senate districts in Republican-led Ohio will still favor the GOP. Democrats who control New York could still draw maps as they wish. And a potential stalemate in Virginia could eventually kick the process to the courts.
“It’s probably predictable that this is sort of how it’s panned out,” said Alex Keena, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University who has analyzed redistricting and gerrymandering.
Redistricting can carry significant consequences. Subtle changes in district lines can solidify a majority of voters for a particular party or split its opponents among multiple districts to dilute their influence. Republicans need to net just five seats to regain the U.S. House in the 2022 elections, which could determine the fate of President Joe Biden’s remaining agenda.
Throughout most of American history, redistricting has been handled by state lawmakers and governors who have an incentive to draw lines favoring their own parties. But as public attention to gerrymandering has grown in recent decades, voters in an increasing number of states have shifted the task to special commissions.
Some commissions — such as those in Arizona, California, Colorado and Michigan — consist solely of citizens who hold the final say on what maps to enact. But others, such as in Ohio and Virginia, include politicians among their members or require their maps to be submitted to the legislature for final approval, as is the case in New York, Virginia and Utah.
If New York’s Democratic-led Legislature rejects the work of the new commission (consisting of four Democrats, four Republicans and two independents), then lawmakers can draft and pass their own redistricting plans.
The prospects of that increased last week, when Democrats and Republicans on the commission failed to agree and instead released competing versions of new maps for the U.S. House, state Senate and state Assembly.
State Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy blasted the Democratic maps as “wildly gerrymandered” and accused Democratic commissioners of refusing to compromise.
State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs countered that there was no reason to “bend over backwards” to try to draw as many Republican seats as possible. He added: “We’ll be fair, but to a point.”
The commission’s division frustrated Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York. The organization supported the 2014 ballot measure that created the commission and encouraged people to testify at the panel’s public hearings this year.
“It almost feels like a slap in the face to us and to all those people who spent the time to go and submit comments — took time out of their daily lives to do that — when it’s very obvious there was no regard for any of those comments,” Wilson said.
Frustration also is mounting in Ohio, where a commission dominated by Republican elected officials voted this past week to adopt a state legislative redistricting plan they favored. Because the plan had no Democratic support, the state constitution limits it to four years.
Democrats on the panel called the maps unfair. But Republican Senate President Matt Huffman asserted that special interests pressured Democrats not to back a redistricting plan that could have lasted the entire next decade.
Huffman said the new map likely would produce 62 Republican seats in the Ohio House and 23 in the Senate — down just a couple in each chamber from the current GOP supermajorities. Experts estimate the state’s voters are more evenly divided, around 54% Republican to 46% Democratic.
The partisan map came despite more than a dozen public hearings dominated by testimony from Ohio residents who said the current gerrymandered maps have left them out in the cold.
“Too many of us have had little say in who represents us and watched helplessly as laws are passed that hurt our families and ignore our needs,” Areege Hammad, of CAIR-Ohio, a civil rights organization for Muslims, testified.
She said the neighborhood around the Islamic Center of Cleveland, one of the region’s largest Muslim populations, is fractured into multiple congressional and statehouse districts.
“Because of the way that districts are drawn, our elected officials have no incentive to be receptive, responsive or accessible to us or our concerns,” she said.
Michigan’s citizen redistricting commission released its first draft of a new state Senate and U.S. House map this past week and is still working on a state House map. It’s planning to take more public comment on its proposals with a goal of finalizing maps by the end of the year — blowing past the Nov. 1 deadline set in the constitutional amendment approved by voters.
But the Michigan panel of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents has so far avoided devolving into partisan encampments. One reason may be that Michigan’s commission includes no politicians and no ability for the Republican-led Legislature to override its work, Keena said.
In Virginia, two separate mapmakers hired for Democrats and Republicans are to submit rival plans for consideration this coming week by the 16-member commission, which has four lawmakers and four citizens from each major party. If the commission can’t agree — or the Democratic-led General Assembly rejects its maps — the decision will fall to the state Supreme Court, which is dominated by GOP-appointed judges.
How commissioners respond to the two maps will determine whether the reform effort works, said Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021, which supported last year’s ballot measure creating the commission. She said she hopes panelists find a way “to marry” the two proposals.
“There’s certainly a concern that two balanced sides just end in gridlock,” White said. “The hope really is that the citizens are there to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Even if the commission stalemates, the new process still could be considered an improvement over the previous one, because the public is getting to see deliberations and divisions that might otherwise have been kept behind closed doors, said Keena, of Virginia Commonwealth.
“We’re going to be able to look back on this sort of experiment and see what works and what doesn’t work,” he said. “Hopefully that will lead to better reforms in the future.”