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Voters Approve Redistricting Reforms in Colorado, Missouri, Michigan (and Maybe Utah, Too)

Taking redistricting power away from lawmakers isn't a foolproof strategy for ending gerrymandering, but it's probably a modest step in the right direction.

JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/NewscomJOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/Newscom

Voters in three states—Colorado, Michigan, and Missouri—approved ballot measures Tuesday that will transfer some redistricting authority away from state lawmakers by creating independent commissions for the purpose of redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines after the next census.

The three measures approved Tuesday vary slightly from state to state, but the general consensus across all three states, where the initiatives got more than 60 percent approval, seems to be that voters are interested in trying a new approach to one of the most important and most political aspects of American democracy. (In Utah, a similar ballot initiative to create a redistricting commission remained too close to call on Wednesday afternoon. With 74 percent of precincts across the state reporting, "Yes" had a narrow 4,000-vote lead.)

Colorado's initiative would create a 12-member commission for the purpose of redrawing congressional districts. Half of the members would be selected by a panel of state Supreme Court justices, and half would be selected by the majority and minority leaders of the state legislature. Speaking of: Rocky Mountain voters also approved a separate ballot question to create a different 12-member commission to redraw state legislative districts. Under the ballot initiatives, the commissions would each include four registered Republicans, four registered Democrats, and four people who "will not be affiliated with any political party."

Staff/TNS/NewscomStaff/TNS/NewscomThat wording seems to exclude members of third parties, something that has rankled the state's Libertarian and Green parties, as Reason has previously reported.

Michigan's redistricting initiative would create a similar scheme. The new, 13-member redistricting commission would have to include four Democrats, four Republicans, and five independents or members of third parties. Passing a new redistricting plan will require the approval of at least seven members, including at least two Democrats, two Republicans, and two of the other members.

Missouri's redistricting reforms were included in an omnibus ballot question that also included changes to the state's lobbying laws and imposed campaign finance restrictions for state legislative candidates. The measure creates a new, nonpartisan position known as the state demographer, who will be appointed by a consensus of the state auditor and Senate leaders from both parties. The state demographer will provide a series of redistricting options for state lawmakers to choose between—rather than allowing legislators to draw their own.

Limiting redistricting is a worthwhile project that could produce more competitive House elections and help nudge American politics away from the fringes. When so many districts are carved to give one party or the other a clear advantage, it makes low-turnout primary elections more important and encourages politicians on both sides to pander more to their own parties' outer flanks than to the ideological middle, where most voters reside.

That said, handing redistricting power to a so-called independent commission is not a foolproof strategy for fixing gerrymandering.

The same political pressures that cause state lawmakers to draw districts that favor one major party or the other are still present, and some redistricting commissions have actually done a worse job of drawing competitive districts that the state legislatures they replaced. Who ends up being appointed to those commissions, how they are picked, and what oversight (from courts, for example) exists are probably more important than the simple fact that a commission has been created.

Several other states—most notably California, Arizona, and Iowa—experimented with redistricting commissions in 2010, and legal challenges to legislative-drawn maps in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and North Carolina reached the Supreme Court last year, further raising the profile of redistricting battles.

It also won't put an end to partisan complaints—primarily from Democrats—about the makeup of House districts. It's true that gerrymandering played an important role in giving the GOP an advantage in House races since 2012, but other geographic factors—like the fact that Democratic voters tend to be concentrated in cities—would give Republicans an advantage even if all districts were more compactly drawn.

That's not an argument against mechanisms that result in more compact districts, of course, but merely a function of the fact that the two major parties have essentially divided along urban/rural lines.

Still, it probably makes sense to remove that power from the direct control of state legislatures, particularly in places where they have wielded it irresponsibly. Doing so may, in some small way, increase the level of trust the public has in the redistricting process.

Photo Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • Mr. JD||

    "independent commissions"

    Meaning permanent one-party control of the process, quite possibly.

  • Sevo||

    "Meaning permanent one-party control of the process, quite possibly."

    Yeah, the 'non-political' CA commission pretty much handed the state to the Ds.

  • CE||

    I think the voters did that.

  • Lester224||

    I think you have a problem with math or majority rule or both.

  • Sevo||

    Lester224|11.7.18 @ 2:32PM|#
    "I think you have a problem with math or majority rule or both."

    Math is not one of my problems; mob rule is.

  • Calidissident||

    Whatever problems there are with California, I don't think our districts are very gerrymandered. Can you cite examples? The state has been handed to the Ds by the voters.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    CA is gerrymandered like every other states.

    Look at the maps of CA districts and the long sticks of the a district to dilute GOP votes and maximize Democrat votes.

    There are solid GOP areas of California you know?
    CA District 23
    Kevin McCarthy* (Rep.) 89,568 66.5%
    Tatiana Matta (Dem). 45,152 33.5

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    "Independent commission", "advisory commission", "backup commission", "independent backup advisory commission", yeah the whole idea is bullcrap. EVERYONE has connections and biases that are going to affect what they think is fair.

  • perlchpr||

    I think the best way to do it is mathematically, with one of the criteria being "shortest possible boundaries", to avoid massively gerrymandered crap.

  • I can't even||

    The "independent commission" in New Jersey gerrymandered the fuck out of my district. What was Scott Garrett's district for years got enough Bergen County liberals added in a bizarre redraw to ensure a Republican (particularly a Liberty Caucus type) will never win it again.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Fascinating how this sort of thing started to pop up since the GOP started winning state legislature majorities consistently.

  • Bubba Jones||

    We already have that. In Dem states, they gerrymander safe seats for existing Republicans in order to get their buy in. And vice versa. People are more interested in getting re elected than in anything else. Permanent minority status is A-OK so long as I am included in the permanent part.

    Piss off the wrong people, and you get gerrymandered out of office.

  • CE||

    Do away with districts. Let everyone have an actual representative, not someone a plurality of their neighbors picked for them.

  • Juice||

    The states would still get their delegated number of, um, delegates, but they would be chosen in order of votes they got throughout the whole state. It would be a sort of ideological districting.

    Of course, the two parties would never go for this since it would obviously dilute their power.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Fiefdoms are important to create a power base.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Honestly, I don't understand why districting can't be replaced by a computer algorithm. Equally apportion the districts with a perfectly rectangular shape inside of state borders. It could be easily designed by a third party, which would be non-partisan.

  • Rossami||

    It could be done by algorithm but the result would not be rectangular districts. The easiest algorithm to design is lowest-total-borders. With that, you'd get something that looked like a two-dimensional soap-bubble display.

    A modification of that algorithm could recognize and apply some weight to existing boundaries like county lines, major rivers, etc.

  • Bubba Jones||

    That sounds like the idea I posted after you, and using smaller words.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    Fair enough. And legislators can determine how they want to draw the borders... Preference for natural and/or administrative borders, etc. Give some general guidelines to the computer programmer that the legislators all agree upon and then contract it out to some third party.

    It really shouldn't be this difficult.

  • Rossami||

    By the way, the software already exists. Here is an example of a computer-generated algorithm designed for maximum compactness.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Census 2020 is going to be a re-districting loss for Democrats.

    Red states picked up a bunch of people from more populous states. Many of those states are Blue. Meaning those Blue states might lose House seats to Red states.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Census 2020 is going to be a re-districting loss for Democrats.

    That seems as reliable and insightful as day-old 'Republicans are going to hold the House' assertions.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Politics baby. Democrats are some gerrymandering fools too.

  • Mickey Rat||

    It is an easily corrupted gimmick that gives legislative power to a body almost entirely insulated from the electorate. The pool is self selecting and limited.

    The people behind this are either idealistic idiots or cynical hacks who think they can protect their power from the vagaries of state house elections. This is a con job.

  • RPGuy16||

    The problem with all of these schemes is that it presumes there is some "right" way to draw a district, when in reality any approach you take is arbitrary. If the goal is to try to have districts that are contiguous and more evenly shaped, then the proposals should spell out some specific requirements instead of just handing the process over to a committee that can come up with anything and can be just as biased as whoever was deciding before.

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    This is why I think you should take the human element out of it. Make them as rectangular as possible and as evenly apportioned as possible. A computer algorithm could very easily do this.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I will not rest until they're redistricted the way I want them to look.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Taking redistricting power away from lawmakers isn't a foolproof strategy for ending gerrymandering, but it's probably a modest step in the right direction.

    Putting redistricting in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats with lifetime appointments by the ruling party is always the way to go.

  • Bubba Jones||

    That's not quite how they do it.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I'm a big fan of letting a Facebook-provided AI do it.

  • Bubba Jones||

    The redistricting answer is "obvious."

    Identify the number of districts in each state. (n)

    Drop a pin in the center of the top n cities by population.

    Expand each until it encompasses the appropriate number of citizens. (~700,000 people)

    This would provide congressional reps that are most in line with the wishes of the voters. Don't we want reps with 90% of the vote? Doesn't that maximize satisfaction with one's rep? Voters can haggle about the details in the primaries.

  • Rossami||

    As a computer algorithm, that won't actually work. Or rather, you could make it work but you'll have some districts that are wildly misshapen as the algorithm gets further away from city centers.

    The other criticism of that approach is that it will overweight the concentration of urban voters while fragmenting the vote of rural and suburban voters.

    You'd do much better with a random initial placement of your n start points, then allow those points to shift as as two expanding circles touch. It's a very simple algorithm - much easier to program than it is to explain.

  • Calidissident||

    I agree with Leo's take. With modern technology, there's no reason why redistricting can't be done via algorithm.

  • DaveSs||

    Redistricting already is done by algorithm.

    The problem is that the algorithm is programmed to above all, create an outcome beneficial for the majority party and specific minority party incumbents.

  • Tony||

    Everyone whining like little bitches about how Republicans aren't shoving their cocks down our throats enough on this thread too?

  • Mickey Rat||

    Don't project your fantasies onto the rest of us.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Tony and his Lefties lost overall in election 2018, as evidenced by their whining.

    They whine when the lose and whine when the lose more.

  • Valkanis||

    "That wording seems to exclude members of third parties, something that has rankled the state's Libertarian and Green parties, as Reason has previously reported." They are right to be rankled because giving legal authority to a political party violates the guarantee of a republican form of government and is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has clung to an asinine and unsupportable "political question doctrine" to sidestep the obvious because the justices themselves are members of political parties and so are blind to rational analysis of the issue.

  • Dillinger||

    nobody fears the rankled.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    How would Republicans and conservatives propose to remain electorally viable in America without gerrymandering and race-targeted voter suppression?

    Democratic governors will participate in the next wave of redistricting in states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, ad Michigan. After Pennsylvania recently discarded Republican-drawn districts, the House delegation moved from 13-5 Republican to 9-9 this week and likely will have a Democratic majority next time around.

    Progress is beautiful.

  • Kivlor||

    I can't speak for the other states' initiatives, because I didn't read them, but the MO initiative was terrible. The idea that we should give up our representation in this matter to an unelected stooge of the Auditor is a terrible idea. Dems are hoping they'll have the Auditor so they can dictate the district boundaries, rather than having to do it in the proper republican (little "r") process.

    The only good news in the whole thing was the massive reduction in gifts allowed to politicians, which I'm sure there will be some way for them to get around.

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