Reform Advocates Split on DNC Redistricting Plank

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Those who advocate for reforming the way states draw their district maps say the next few years are critical for their movement, but advocates are divided on what new system to implement and the Democratic Party platform offers no specifics.
     With states preparing to redraw maps with the new census in 2020, the Democratic Party platform’s commitment to redistricting reform might be perfect timing for reform advocates.
     Long the target of politicians complaining about hyper-partisanship or worrying about voting rights, the way most states conduct redistricting allows state legislatures to draw lines in ways that make their districts more favorable to the majority party or to protect incumbents.
     The platform doesn’t embrace a particular idea to solve the problem. While some experts are concerned about the platform’s perceived weakness, others say the wording allows individual states to craft measures to fit their needs.
     “Not specifying how they would deal with those issues makes some sense,” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
     If meaningful redistricting reform is to finally happen, McDonald said now is the time. With the 2020 elections still far enough in the distance to cloud any sense of which party will control the legislatures, state parties might be willing to embrace some reform as a hedge against the other party controlling the map when it comes times for lines to be redrawn.
     Once a party knows it will control the legislature, reform efforts could die, McDonald said.
     “By the time we get to 2020, things are going to become too political at that point,” he said. “In some states, because the state governments are the ones drawing the redistricting plans, it may be fairly evident to everybody as to who’s controlling the process and then it becomes a partisan fight at that point rather than a true good-government reform fight.”
     Dan Vicuña, national redistricting coordinator for Common Cause, agreed that the time is ripe for redistricting reform and said his group has active campaigns underway in North Carolina and Maryland to help push for those changes.
     “You really don’t know in some places what the state is going to look like in the next year ending in zero,” Vicuña said.
     Some states have already gotten ahead of this looming partisan deadline, adopting reforms that at least limit the power of state legislatures to stack the maps in their favor.
     California, which Vicuña called the “gold standard” for reform, uses an independent commission that consists of five Democrats, five Republicans and four Independents to draw its maps.
     The commission members are heavily vetted before the state auditor puts their names on a list. Party leaders are then allowed to strike people from the list before eight names are randomly chosen to serve on the commission.
     Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, said the set up has worked well, though in the limited sample of one election cycle.
     “The goal is not to have somebody who has no political views and is sort of a blank slate or lived in a cave for 30 years and has come out and have them draw a map,” Li said. “Independence isn’t a binary. It isn’t like you are independent or you’re not independent, it’s a scale. Just like when you’re selecting a jury, what you want to do is you want to end up with people who are more open minded and are going to be more fair and the process is designed to do that.”
     Other states are adopting a similar commission structure, while still others are putting in place less vague rules on what the districts that the commission draws have to look like.
     “Having stronger rules and independent map drawers would be a big step forward in the right direction,” Li said.
     Li said reform efforts have been most successful in states with ballot initiatives built into their constitutions, but hoped a “growing recognition” that state governments have broken down because of reckless gerrymandering could help put redistricting reform in the forefront.
     Wendy Underhill, program manager for elections policy with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said state lawmakers are looking at these reforms favorably even without ballot initiatives or calls from the top.
     “I think if you are a legislator you might like it because, if you are in the minority, you might feel like you are isolated and not being heard,” Underhill said.
     While the National Conference of State Legislatures does not support a specific reform, Underhill cautioned against throwing out the whole system in favor of the independent commissions, no matter how popular they might be.
     Small changes to rules and criteria for redistricting could be effective, Underhill said.
     McDonald embraced independent commissions, but said there are other ideas that look outside of the political realm that have been proven successful.
     He supported a “competition” in Ohio in 2010 that solicited redistricting plans from more than 50 regular people in the state. He found these plans were better at checking off a number of criteria for fair districts than the actual plan Ohio adopted.
     Using a formula to assess the fairness of a map, coupled with input from people outside of the political bubble, could be an innovative method for assuring better voting districts, McDonald said.
     “I would say open it up just to the general public,” he said. “You can find people in the general public who can produce legal redistricting plans that can actually do very well in balancing the different criteria that both the reform community and the voting rights community hold dear to themselves.”
     Underhill, however, noted that drawing maps is a traditional job for legislatures and said opening the tools up to citizens, while good for increasing transparency, might end up showing them how hard it is to draw good maps.
     The question of why state legislatures would give up the power to draw their own districts remains difficult to answer. Li hoped the bitterly partisan legislatures that turn every vote into a party-line affair that gerrymandering has brought about would lead some lawmakers to seriously consider reform efforts.
     “There is a lot of frustration from Republicans who certainly are conservative but go down to their state capitols to govern and there’s a sense they can no longer govern,” Li said. “Everything is about, sort of, sending a political message and that’s not what they want to do.”
     Simply having a commitment to reform on the party platform does not make reform inevitable, however. Though Republicans are the most recent party to employ gerrymandering to set up favorable state-level maps, Democrats have used the practice in the past as well.
     “It’s a difficult reform to pass, it’s a difficult reform to make happen,” Vicuña said. “In the states where there is no ballot initiative option, you’re trying to shame politicians into handing over their own power and that’s no easy thing to do.”
     In fact, Democrats in Illinois are opposing an effort to get a redistricting reform initiative on the ballot and party lawmakers have not exactly flocked behind bills in Congress to go after gerrymandering, Li said.
     “They agree there’s a problem. I don’t think that they agree that there necessarily is a solution,” Li said.
     McDonald also identified one potentially nefarious omission from the party platform’s call for an end to specific types of gerrymandering. While it explicitly condemns “partisan and racial” gerrymandering, Democrats stay silent on so-called incumbent protection, a form of gerrymandering in which legislatures draw lines in such a way as to keep sitting party lawmakers from ever facing a competitive election.
     But redistricting experts and watchers say having the commitment to redistricting reform on a major party’s platform is important, despite the challenges it might face going forward.
     “This is the first time that democracy issues have been this prominent in either party’s platform in many decades,” Li said.

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