Congressional redistricting is broken. In most states, districts are drawn by partisan lawmakers, and the manipulation of district boundaries for partisan or other discriminatory purposes is rife, with communities of color being amongst the hardest hit. While courts can provide a remedy, litigation is often slow and costly. This allows discriminatory maps to sometimes remain in place for years while court cases and the inevitable appeals run their course. But H.R. 1, the broad and historic democracy reform bill passed by the House in March, offers some smart, comprehensive ideas that would make the redistricting process fairer and more transparent.
All states would be required to use independent commissions
The biggest change under H.R. 1 would be that all states would be required to use independent citizen commissions to draw congressional districts. These 15-member commissions would include five Democrats, five Republicans, and five Independents or members of smaller parties, ensuring that all interests are represented equally when lines are drawn. Strong conflict of interest rules would prevent lobbyists, staffers, and political operatives from serving on the commission, and screening processes would ensure that qualified commissioners are selected.
The process for approving a map also would be transformed. In contrast to the current practice in most states, maps could no longer be approved along party lines. Instead, for a map to become law, it would need to win support from Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and members of third parties on the commission.
Partisan gerrymandering would be expressly banned
H.R. 1 would give voters an important advantage by creating the first ban against partisan gerrymandering in federal statutory law.
This statutory ban would let voters use H.R. 1 to challenge gerrymandered maps under H.R. 1 instead of having to rely, as is the case presently, on claims brought under various parts of the Constitution. Having a statutory remedy could be an especially important tool for voters given uncertainty about how far the Supreme Court will go in allowing partisan gerrymandering claims brought under the Constitution.
Importantly, the ban could be implemented for maps drawn in 2021, even the passage of H.R. 1 does not come in time for independent commissions to be set up.
The rules for drawing maps would be made uniform across the country
H.R. 1 would create a comprehensive, uniform set of rules for mapdrawing.
Currently, the only requirement in federal law for drawing congressional districts is that states must use single-member districts. Some states impose additional requirements in their own laws, but many do not. This has created an unlevel playing field and opened the door to all kinds of manipulation.
Under H.R. 1, mapdrawers are required to avoid the unnecessary division of communities, neighborhoods, and political subdivisions. Protections for communities of color also would be strengthened to ensure that the political power of those communities is not undermined by mapdrawers.
Mapdrawers also would be required to issue written reports evaluating proposed maps’ compliance with these rules before any voting on maps could commence.
As with the ban on partisan gerrymandering, these rules could be put in place for 2021 even if passage of H.R. 1 does not come in time for implementation of commissions.
The public would have a chance to review maps and provide feedback
H.R. 1 would end the current practice in many states of drawing maps in the dark with minimal opportunity for public input.
All proposed maps would have to be posted on a public website along with the data used to draw the maps. And once the commission adopts a preliminary redistricting plan, the public would have a minimum of 30 days to review and submit comments on the plan, either online or at public hearings, before a final vote could be held on the plan. All comments received on the plan would be made publicly available, and, more importantly, the commission would be required to issue a final report responding to comments.
The public would also be able to watch commission proceedings via digital livestreams.
There would be an expedited process for challenging maps
Last but not least, H.R. 1 would streamline the currently convoluted and time-consuming process for courts to review redistricting plans.
Under the current process, maps ultimately found to be discriminatory often end up remaining in place for multiple election cycles while the legal process winds its course. This creates an incentive for mapdrawers to be aggressive in gerrymandering, because even if a map is struck down, the gerrymandering party will have reaped the benefit for two or three – and, on occasion, more – cycles.
H.R. 1 would change that by requiring both district courts and the Supreme Court expedite redistricting cases to the greatest extent possible. The timeframe for filings in appeals would also be greatly shortened to allow for judicial review to occur much more quickly.
This change also could be implemented for 2021 even if implementation of some parts of H.R. 1 might have to wait.