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Five Ways H.R. 1 Would Transform Redistricting

A historic voting rights bill could make maps fairer and more representative.

June 19, 2019

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.

(Image: krblokhin)