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.

November 29, 2017

Grassroots and advocacy 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. 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

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. By the end of the year, the group plans to submit over 400,000 signatures to the state, more than the 315,654 signatures needed, to place a question before Michigan voters on the 2018 ballot.

Learn more about the proposal here.

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 also 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 has gathered over 160,000 signatures for a constitutional amendment that would add congressional maps to the state redistricting commission’s duties. In 2014, state lawmakers passed a constitutional amendment establishing a seven-member redistricting commission to draw the state’s legislative districts, which voters overwhelmingly approved on the 2015 ballot. In order for the initiative to get on the ballot, petitioners need to collect a minimum 305,591 signatures of registered Ohio voters.

Meanwhile, in the Ohio Legislature, a redistricting working group created to review and consider reforms for the state’s congressional redistricting process heard testimony from citizens and good government groups. The working group plans to submit its recommendations to the full legislature by December.

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.

The task force had some concerns with Richardson’s proposal, and released a report in October issuing its recommendations for reform. The task force’s recommendations would create an eleven-member commission to draw maps, implementing procedures for public input and hearings during the map-drawing process, and using ranked-order criteria. A constitutional amendment needs at least 117,578 signatures to qualify for the ballot.

As an alternative to a citizen-led proposal, a local newspaper reported that Richardson is talking with Republican lawmakers to try and introduce a bill in the 2018 legislative session. Voters would ultimately have to decide and approve a measure in order to amend the state constitution.

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 could 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 coalition submitted over 34,000 signatures to the Secretary of State for review – 6,000 more than the required 27,741 valid signatures needed to advance to the 2018 ballot. The Secretary of State will need to examine the petitions and determine if there are enough valid signatures to qualify for the 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 unless necessary to comply with other redistricting criteria.

In a recent survey of 605 registered voters, a little over half of respondents were somewhat or strongly supportive of the Better Boundaries initiative, though one in five remains unsure about the idea.

The group has begun collecting the  approximately  113,000 signatures it needs for the petition to be placed on the 2018 ballot.

Colorado

Fair Districts Colorado, a coalition of former and current elected officials, plans to run a package of 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 two of the draft proposals would put redistricting in the hands of a twelve-member citizens commission, while a third proposal would include both lawmakers and citizens on an eleven-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, including at least one independent commissioner, to adopt a final map. The commission must also conduct a series of public hearings before approving a map.

Although the proposal gives unaffiliated voters a seat at the redistricting table, critics have argued that the commission’s selection process would maintain partisanship in the process by allowing partisan legislative leaders to strategically appoint members of the commission, while unaffiliated appointments would be selected last. Others have noted that minority communities did not have enough input into the plan, a critique that led many community leaders and organizers to oppose a similar ballot proposal last year.

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

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 and House Bill 722, which both would create an eleven-member commission, composed of members the two largest political parties and third-party or unaffiliated voters. Both bills are currently stalled in committee.

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.