WASHINGTON – After one of the most litigious rounds of redistricting in recent history, movements have popped up in at least five states to take the power to draw legislative and congressional maps away from legislators and put it in the hands of commissioners.
The task of redistricting, done every 10 years after the U.S. Census counts the population, falls on state legislators in most states. But over the past five years, maps drawn by legislators in 40 states have been challenged in court amid accusations of gerrymandering or attempts to dilute minorities’ voting power. The idea of a commission doing the mapping is attracting new interest:
• Legislators in Florida and Wisconsin are considering bills that would establish commissions to draw the lines.
•Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland has created a task force to study how it can curb gerrymandering.
• Indiana, Nebraska and North Carolina considered bills this year that did not pass.
Twenty-three states have some sort of commission involved in redistricting. But they are a relatively recent development in the history of redistricting and their makeup varies widely, which leads some political scholars to say it’s unclear whether commissions do a better job.
“There is a growing consensus that commissions are not any worse and are perhaps better,” said Michael Li, redistricting counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. “Where you have commissions there seems to be a lot less contentious and protracted litigation.”
But Bruce Cain, a political-science professor at Stanford University, said his research suggests that commission plans tend to fare equally in court when it comes to whether the maps they draw are rejected or upheld.
Proponents of independent commissions say legislators have a conflict of interest and too much political know-how to avoid drawing maps in their favor — something they say results in representatives picking their voters instead of voters picking their representatives. The large number of recent court cases suggests accusations of gerrymandering have been on the rise.
Many legislators balk at the idea of being stripped of redistricting power. That was the case in Arizona, where the Legislature challenged an independent redistricting commission. Arizona House Speaker David Gowan, a Republican, said the U.S. Constitution gives legislatures redistricting power.
Although four members of the five-member Arizona redistricting commission are chosen by legislators, an independent fifth member, the commission’s chairman, is selected by commissioners.
Gowan questioned whether the commission’s chairman, or the other members, should be given such an important task without first being vetted by the voters. “Those people are appointed and therefore not held accountable,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court, however, earlier this year upheld the constitutionality of the Arizona commission.
Tim Storey, who studies redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said the makeup of commissions can be as political as that of legislatures, though commissioners’ motives may not be as transparent.
“If the goal is to regulate the partisan influence of redistricting, do you need a commission or do you need tougher rules?” Storey said. “Is it who does it or how they do it?”