Not many would argue with the premise that our electoral system has become increasingly politicized in the past decades. It is now almost an old trope to say that our legislatures have become mired in partisan vitriol, stymieing most, if not all, attempts at cooperation and good governance, and deteriorating the quality of legislative, and even civil, discourse in recent years. Really, the entire world has noticed. While many factors could be named, one that has been proven a cause is political gerrymandering. Lacking any substantial legal limits, nor any indication of coming changes from the U.S. Supreme Court which would put a stop to such antics, an entrenched political machinery has taken advantage of redistricting processes to create district lines which are enormously manipulated for partisan political gain, and which no longer reflect the representative will of the people.
In the vast majority of states today, legislators themselves are given ownership over the redistricting process; district maps are created by the very same politicians who will be up for election in those districts. Such an arrangement allows legislators to functionally chose their own voters, protect incumbents and reduce competition, and makes the system as a whole less responsive and accountable to the voters as legislators try to manipulate the lines to best serve themselves and their party. With a lack of competitive elections, who can blame the American people for a broad disinterest in politics and low voter turnout?
With this backdrop, redistricting reformers have adopted a single mantra: independence. Instead of legislators, reformers argue, district maps should be created by independent redistricting commissions, free from the political pressures and personal motivations of partisan legislators. According to these advocates, independent and bipartisan commissions will increase electoral competitiveness and legislative diversity, shift the electoral discourse toward political moderation, and act in the public interest rather than engaging in partisan politics.
Six states have moved past legislator-drawn redistricting in favor of a commission which has some level of both independence and bipartisan characteristics. Hawaii and New Jersey have bipartisan appointed politician commissions. Three more states, Arizona, Montana, and Washington State have so-called independent commissions, as they do not include legislators or other elected officials, but legislators may in fact have some substantial control over the appointment process. One final state, California, has a bipartisan commission which consists of individuals affiliated with both the two major parties as well as independent parties (or no party affiliation), and whose members are chosen from a pool created by panel of experts; this structure removes legislators themselves from all elements of the process. [Note that this includes only those states with Congressional district lines to draw; while Alaska and Montana are often included on such lists, as they only have one Congressional representative each, their independent redistricting commissions are by definition limited to drawing the lines of state districts.]
When approved by voters in 2010, California’s framework was initially considered the gold standard in liberal-led anti-gerrymandering reform. Yet the election results of the past three cycles conducted under the new district lines (2012, 2014, and 2016) have not quite lived up to the hype. In fact, the belief that a truly independent redistricting commission would all but guarantee the end of partisan gerrymandering has come under serious skepticism, because independent redistricting commissions may not necessarily result in increased electoral competition. Studies have not shown any significant increase in competitive elections, significant shift in ideological moderation, or significant increase in descriptive representation, as a result of independent redistricting commissions. Instead of resulting in more competition, as many advocates assumed they would see, the California example has shown that even so-called independent commissions can be manipulated by the party in power. Outside interest groups, especially those which have supported the Democratic side of the aisle, and political operatives took control of the process to ensure that the results would continue to mirror their own interests, rather than what would have created a more representative democracy. Competitiveness, as a measure of meaningful elections, only grew slightly.
Iowa has taken a different approach. There, the non-partisan Legislative Service Agency, an advisory body comprised of civil servants, has been by statute responsible for drawing the redistricting plan since 1980. [Additionally, Maine and New York both have advisory commissions which aid the legislators in the redistricting process, but some members of their commissions are chosen by state legislators themselves.]
Maps are set by statutory criteria, which also bars any political considerations. If any part of the statute is ambiguous, only then can a temporary, bipartisan, independent but politically-appointed committee give guidance. The plan is then presented to the state legislature, which can approve or disapprove (up to twice), but cannot amend, the agency’s plan. Notably, the state constitution seems to prohibit mid-decade redistricting, which the Supreme Court considers constitutionally permissible but which may allow political considerations to further interfere with the redistricting process. After legislature approval, the plans go through the usual route for legislation: they are presented for public input, and then subject to a governor’s veto. Iowa’s system has managed to keep the redistricting process out of court, and out of today’s current politicized discourse and partisan climate. And perhaps most importantly, anyone looking at Iowa’s map can see the clear lines – as opposed to, for example, North Carolina’s convoluted and obviously gerrymandered districts.
Proponents may argue that independent redistricting commissions fulfill other goals, including transparency, involving citizens and increasing civic participation, reducing polarization, and eliminating corruption. Yet Iowa’s meritocracy can fulfill those same aims, while ensuring expertise in the redistricting process and avoiding the pitfalls exemplified by California’s experience. Of course, we could just take the human factor out of redistricting completely – computers and algorithms could do it all. Yet the human factor does matter: communities of interest require someone who actually is part of the community. But in moving forward with reforms to combat political gerrymandering, we need to think beyond simply independent redistricting commissions, and include solutions – like Iowa’s – which can create lasting positive change.
Edited by: Elizabeth Petruy