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Congress Wades into Redistricting Reform

Efforts to modernize the redistricting process have historically taken place at the state level. But in the face of a looming Supreme Court ruling, some members of Congress are proposing more sweeping reform at the national level.

  • Eric Petry
May 13, 2015

Efforts to modernize the redistricting process have historically taken place at the state level. In fact, over the past several decades nearly two dozen states have implemented new redistricting methods, typically through giving mapdrawing power to some type of commission. And already this year, lawmakers in 30 states have introduced 89 measures — from creating commissions, to implementing new restricting standards, to improving transparency — that would change how they conduct redistricting after the 2020 Census.

Now, in the face of the Supreme Court’s looming ruling on the constitutionality of Arizona’s redistricting commission, and growing debate about dysfunction in Washington, some members of Congress are proposing more sweeping reform at the national level — with three redistricting bills already introduced in the first few months of the new Congress.

One bill — the John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act (H.R. 1347) — introduced by a bipartisan group of 15 representatives, including longtime reform advocates Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), aims to reduce partisan gerrymandering by requiring every state to use a redistricting commission appointed by the majority and minority leaders in each chamber of the state legislature (with a final tiebreaking member selected by the legislative appointees).

In addition to mandating the use of a bipartisan redistricting commission, the bill would also require states to create and maintain a website to house redistricting information, such as draft maps and the time and location of public hearings. Cooper, a member of the Blue Dog coalition who has long advocated for greater bipartisanship, described the bill as a dose of “much-needed sunlight” to disinfect “our shady election process.”

Cooper and Ribble also sponsored the Redistricting Transparency Act of 2015 (H.R. 1346), a less comprehensive version of the John Tanner Act that includes the transparency requirements but does not require states to use redistricting commissions.

Another group of 24 representatives, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), introduced the Redistricting Reform Act of 2015 (H.R.2173) to require states to use redistricting commissions. Like Cooper and Ribble, Lofgren cites the Arizona case currently before the Supreme Court as a catalyst for her bill, saying “the issue of redistricting reform is one that is central to our democracy, and . . . it has never been more important.” Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.) echoed her co-sponsor and fellow Californian, arguing that “California’s citizen-driven redistricting process proved that government of, for, and by the people is not only possible, but its success makes it imperative.”

Lofgren’s group, however, proposes a very different type of redistricting commission from the Cooper/Ribble bill. Instead of leaving selection of commission members in the hands of state legislative leaders, the Redistricting Reform Act would attempt to remove the process from the hands of politicians even further by implementing California-like “independent, multi-party citizen redistricting commissions” in every state.  Under this model, a non-partisan state agency would compile three pools of qualified applicants — one for applicants registered with the majority political party in the state, one for applicants registered with the minority party, and one for applicants registered with neither party. The non-partisan agency would then randomly select four applicants from each pool to serve on the independent redistricting commission.

Both commission bills would prohibit consideration of party affiliation, voting history, or the residence of incumbents in drawing maps. Both bills also contain provisions designed to ensure that neighborhoods and communities of interest (expressly defined in the Lofgren bill) are kept together as much as possible.

The Lofgren bill has been endorsed by Common Cause and the National Council of La Raza. However, whether any of these bills are more than fodder for reform talk remains to be seen. Reforming a process that lies as close to the heart of political power as redistricting is never easy, and the current political polarization of American politics may make the new bills seem especially quixotic. Indeed, versions of all three bills have been introduced in past sessions to no avail. But with the Supreme Court potentially wading into the debate on commissions for the first time, the future of reform efforts may be about to dramatically shift, for better or worse, to Congress. 

(Photo: Flick/TruthOut)