Citizen-Led Efforts to Reform Redistricting

In just a few years, voting districts will be redrawn across the country. Advocacy and grassroots groups in a number of states are busy drafting ballot proposals and launching campaigns that support legislation aimed at curbing gerrymandering.

September 20, 2017

In just a few years, voting districts will be redrawn across the country. Advocacy and grassroots groups in a number of states are busy drafting ballot proposals and launching campaigns that support legislation aimed at curbing gerrymandering – the manipulation of voting districts to favor or disfavor one group of voters over another or to protect incumbents – by instituting redistricting reforms such as independent redistricting commissions to draw district boundaries. Since 2000, similar grassroots efforts led to the successful implementation of independent commissions in Arizona and California.

24 states have a ballot initiative process that allows citizens to propose a law or constitutional amendment either to the legislature or directly to voters. (Other states only allow the legislature to amend the constitution or pass laws, charging citizens with the responsibility to persuade their legislature to pass reforms.)

Here is a round-up of the latest news surrounding citizen-driven efforts aiming to reform redistricting processes.

For more on parallel efforts in state legislatures and Congress to reform redistricting, check out our State Redistricting Bill Tracker and our Congressional Redistricting Bill Tracker.  

Major Citizen-Led Ballot Initiatives

Colorado

Fair Districts Fair Elections, a coalition that includes the League of Women Voters, plans to run two ballot initiatives that would create an independent commission to draw Colorado’s congressional and state legislative lines in an effort to end the partisan battle over redistricting that has often led to disputes in court. The draft proposals would put redistricting in the hands of a nine-member commission. Both commissions would include unaffiliated voters, who currently make up roughly 35 percent of the state’s active voters.

The proposals require a supermajority vote of the commission to adopt a final map. The commission must also conduct a series of public hearings before approving a map. Barbara Mattison, a member of the League of Women Voters working on the effort, told The Denver Post, “We really believe votes should count. Voters should pick their politicians. Politicians shouldn’t pick their voters.”

For the initiative to make it onto the ballot, the coalition must collect at least 98,492 signatures, or 5 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent secretary of state election.

Michigan

A nonpartisan ballot committee called Voters Not Politicians has proposed a ballot initiative that would create a “citizens’ redistricting commission” to draw the state’s political boundaries. Voters Not Politicians founder Katie Fahey hopes a nonpartisan commission will remove politics from the redistricting process, and create a system that “represents voters instead of politicians.”

The proposal was approved by the board of Canvassers in August. The group has begun collecting the 315,000 signatures it needs to place the question before Michigan voters on the 2018 ballot.

Missouri

Clean Missouri, a coalition supported by unions and progressive groups, is campaigning for a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would mandate the use of a new statistical model for redistricting. The amendment would require a nonpartisan state demographer to draw state legislative lines for approval of the legislature. If approved, Missouri would be one of the first states in the nation to require a statistical test to measure partisan fairness in the redistricting process.

The coalition must collect a minimum of 160,199 signatures by May 2018 for the initiative to appear on the November ballot.  

Ohio

A coalition of groups under the name Fair Districts = Fair Elections released a draft constitutional amendment that would add congressional maps to the state redistricting commission’s duties. In 2014, state lawmakers passed a resolution establishing a seven-member redistricting commission to draw the state’s legislative districts, which voters overwhelmingly supported on the 2015 ballot. According to news sources, some Ohio lawmakers want to see how redistricting for the state legislature turns out in the 2021 cycle “before applying similar changes to redistricting for the U.S. Congress,” but good government groups and advocacy organization said that if the legislature did not act by early 2017, they would move forward with a ballot measure.

Their proposed amendment would also require congressional districts to reflect the state’s partisan preferences during the last ten years, and prohibit districts from being drawn to favor or disfavor one political party or candidate.

The state attorney general certified the ballot petition at the end of May. The petitioners need to collect a minimum 305,591 signatures of registered Ohio voters to get the initiative on the ballot.

Oregon

Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson is leading the effort to find a “fair, nonpartisan unbiased way” to conduct the redistricting process. The Fair Redistricting Task Force, assembled by Richardson, was established in February to gather best practices of redistricting reforms in the country to help craft a nonpartisan redistricting proposal. Richardson’s plan would create an eleven-member redistricting commission, composed of members of the two largest political parties and third-party or unaffiliated voters, that would to use a custom computer algorithm to draw state legislative district boundaries. The proposal would also prohibit the commission from considering political or electoral data, favoring or discriminating against a candidate, incumbent, or political party, and diluting the voting strength of a minority group.

Voters would ultimately have to decide and approve the measure in order to amend the state constitution. A constitutional amendment needs at least 117,578 signatures to qualify for the ballot. 

South Dakota

A proposed constitutional amendment put forth by the citizen coalition Citizens for Fair Elections would implement a nine-member independent citizens commission to draw state legislative boundaries beginning in 2021. No more than three of the members may be from the same political party. The amendment specifies that party registration, voting history, and residency of incumbents or candidates may not be considered in the map drawing process. The commission would also be required to publicize draft maps and accept written comments before adopting a final plan.

The proposal has been cleared to circulate and must receive nearly 28,000 signatures by November 6 in order to be placed on the 2018 ballot.

Utah

Better Boundaries, the ballot proposal organized by the bipartisan group, Utahns for Responsive Government, would create a seven-member advisory redistricting commission to advise Utah lawmakers on the redistricting process beginning in 2021. The commissioners, who would be appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, would be required to follow ranked-order criteria to draw the state’s congressional and legislative districts, which would include preserving communities of interest and neighborhoods together. The proposal would also prohibit the commission and the legislature from considering partisan political data. 

The sponsors of the proposal are required to hold seven public hearings throughout the state before circulating the petition for signatures. The initiative would need over 100,000 signatures to be placed on the 2018 ballot.

Notable Reform Efforts

Pennsylvania

Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit volunteer organization, is working to amend the state constitution to give an independent redistricting commission responsibility for drawing the congressional and state legislative boundaries. The organization supports Senate Bill 22, which would create an eleven-member commission, composed of members the two largest political parties and third-party or unaffiliated voters.

In order for the amendment to pass, the state legislature would need to pass the same bill in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 legislative sessions, and voters would then need to approve a public referendum in 2020.