When the redistricting cycle began, there was hope that the wave of reforms adopted in the preceding decade would lead to better outcomes. In the end, the results were mixed.
In some places, reforms succeeded brilliantly in creating a fairer, more inclusive, and transparent process as well as fairer outcomes across a range of metrics. In other places, they failed, sometimes in strikingly dramatic fashion. In yet others, the results ended up being positive, but only because courts intervened to impose fair maps.
Although last decade’s reforms are very heterogenous — ranging from California-style independent commissions in Colorado and Michigan to a head-spinningly complex, one-of-a-kind process in Ohio — it is not hard to find differences between reforms that worked and those that didn’t. The biggest difference was perhaps the simplest of them all: If reforms removed politicians from the line-drawing process, they worked. By contrast, if politicians were left in the mix, reforms broke down.
Among states with new reforms, there is no brighter star than Michigan. Reforms overwhelmingly approved by Michiganders in a 2018 ballot initiative took map-drawing power out of the hands of the state legislature and gave it to a 13-person independent commission that included independents and third-party members as well as Democrats and Republicans. To promote independence, members of the commission are barred from being current or former elected officials or from having close ties to elected officials or to partisan politics. Members are also prohibited from immediately running for office under lines that they draw.
Michigan reforms also changed the process for passing a map. Before reforms, when the legislature drew districts, maps could be approved on a party-line basis, giving the majority party the ability to steamroll opponents and little incentive to compromise. By contrast, the new commission’s rules require that a map win support from at least some Democratic, Republican, and independent or third-party members in order to become law.
Reforms produced a sea change in Michigan. The state’s 2011 maps, drawn by Republicans, were some of the most aggressively gerrymandered in the country. By contrast, this decade’s commission-drawn map is among the country’s most politically balanced, and it easily survived legal challenges (though some minority groups say tweaks still might have to be made to some districts to ensure fair treatment of communities of color). Maps drawn by independent commissions in California, Arizona, and Colorado are similarly among the fairest in the country.
Ohio is a stark counterpoint. Like Michigan, Ohio tightened rules for drawing maps, including by adding a ban on partisan gerrymandering to its state constitution. But in contrast to Michigan, Ohio did not create an independent commission to draw maps and instead left map drawing in the hands of partisan elected officials, who can continue to pass maps on a party-line basis.
Rather than changing who draws the maps, Ohio reforms sought to constrain gerrymandering in two other ways. First, any maps passed without bipartisan support would have to be redrawn after two election cycles, which reformers hoped would create a strong incentive for partisan line drawers to compromise because they would be uncertain who would hold the map-drawing pen in four years’ time. Second, the state constitution’s ban on partisan gerrymandering would for the first time give voters a means to challenge gerrymanders. But neither check worked this cycle.
For Ohio Republicans, the theoretical possibility that Democrats might control the process in four years ended up not seeming like that much of a risk in a state that increasingly skewed Republican since the passage of reforms. Likewise, though the Ohio Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, the reforms limited the remedies it could impose: While the court could order the legislature to redraw the map, it was barred from drawing its own map or appointing a special master to do so. When Ohio officials proceeded to thumb their noses at the court and simply passed another gerrymander, the court was forced by a tight election schedule to allow the gerrymandered map to be used in the 2022 elections. (A similar dynamic played out with respect to Ohio’s legislative maps, where courts have repeatedly struck down maps as gerrymanders only to have the state’s legislative redistricting commission pass yet another gerrymander.)
Three other states with new reforms — New York, Virginia, and Utah — also struggled with overcoming partisanship. In all three, reforms left ultimate responsibility for drawing a map in the hands of the legislature but created advisory commissions to recommend maps to lawmakers.
In Utah, the failure was the most straightforward: Utah’s Republican-controlled legislature simply ignored maps unanimously recommended by the advisory commission that would have created a highly competitive, slightly Democratic-leaning congressional district in Salt Lake City. Instead, it passed a map that surgically divided Salt Lake City among all four of the state’s congressional districts in order to create four solidly Republican districts. A lawsuit challenging the legislatively drawn map as a partisan gerrymander is pending in state court but will not be heard until after the 2022 midterms.
In New York and Virginia, partisanship had its effects earlier in the process when partisan elected officials on the commission or commissioners appointed by partisan elected officials caused the two commissions to deadlock.
In Virginia, deadlock meant that map-drawing responsibility fell to the state supreme court, which appointed two special masters to propose a congressional map. The map produced by special masters and adopted by the court is by all objective standards a very fair one. But the fact that it is easy to cause the commission to deadlock is a worrying sign for the future prospects of a commission where partisan lawmakers make up half the commission’s membership and can readily deadlock the process if they think it will be to their strategic advantage to do so.
Meanwhile, in New York, when the commission failed to muster the bipartisan votes needed to recommend a congressional map to the legislature, the Democratic-controlled legislature asserted that map-drawing responsibility had defaulted back to it and then promptly proceeded to draw one of the decade’s most aggressive congressional gerrymanders. The state’s highest court threw out the gerrymandered map in subsequent litigation by Republican voters and appointed a special master to draw a map. As in Virginia, that map is fair by most objective standards. But the process of redrawing the map was rushed, left minimal time for public input on complex map changes in a highly diverse state, and forced the state to move its congressional primary from June to late August. And, as in Virginia, the ease with which the commission was deadlocked will be an issue in future cycles.
In short, if there is one takeaway from seeing last decade’s reforms in action, it is that design matters. Reforms work — but only if they are robust enough to overcome partisan interests.