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Redistricting Commissions: What Works

A compelling case that putting commissions in charge of redistricting can significantly reduce many of the worst abuses and improve outcomes.

  • Brennan Center for Justice
July 24, 2018

Redis­trict­ing reform is in the spot­light more than ever. Voters could see meas­ures to create redis­trict­ing commis­sions on the ballot in 2018 in Michigan, Missouri, Color­ado, and Utah, and bipar­tisan grass­roots efforts are under­way in other states to fix the map-draw­ing process ahead of the next round of redis­trict­ing in 2021. 

But not all redis­trict­ing commis­sions are equally effect­ive. To assess the strength of earlier redis­trict­ing reforms, the Bren­nan Center inter­viewed a diverse group of more than 100 stake­hold­ers who were involved with redis­trict­ing seven juris­dic­tions that use some form of commis­sion to draw maps. These included both state-level redis­trict­ing commis­sions (Alaska, Arizona, Cali­for­nia, Idaho, Iowa, New Jersey, and Wash­ing­ton) and muni­cipal commis­sions (Austin, San Diego, and Minneapolis). 

The struc­ture, design, and oper­a­tion of these commis­sions varied greatly, ranging from commis­sions that included direct polit­ical appointees and, in some cases, even elec­ted offi­cials (as in New Jersey) to commis­sions (like Cali­for­ni­a’s), whose goal it was to have ordin­ary citizens serve as members. The commis­sions also varied in size, their map-approval processes, and their substant­ive rules. 

What we found was a compel­ling case that putting commis­sions in charge of redis­trict­ing can signi­fic­antly reduce many of the worst abuses asso­ci­ated with redis­trict­ing and improve outcomes and satis­fac­tion across the stake­holder spec­trum — but only if commis­sions are care­fully designed and struc­tured to promote inde­pend­ence and incentiv­ize discus­sion and comprom­ise. 

Find­ings and Recom­mend­a­tions 

Based on our research, the Bren­nan Center recom­mends that reforms creat­ing redis­trict­ing commis­sions include the follow­ing elements in order to maxim­ize their inde­pend­ence and effect­ive­ness: 

  • An inde­pend­ent selec­tion process that not only screens applic­ants for disqual­i­fic­a­tions or conflicts of interest (such as being a lobby­ist) but also makes qual­it­at­ive assess­ments about the fitness of applic­ants to do the job. While not abso­lutely required, includ­ing an element of random­ness in the process also can be an import­ant addi­tional safe­guard against gaming of the process by inter­ested parties. In our study, the strength and inde­pend­ence of the selec­tion process was, by far, the most import­ant determ­in­ant of a commis­sion’s success.
  • Clear, prior­it­ized criteria for map draw­ing that estab­lish the ground rules that commis­sion­ers must follow when design­ing a map. While the specif­ics of the rules differed between success­ful commis­sions, these differ­ences ulti­mately seem to have been less import­ant to the success of the commis­sion than the fact that there were clear and, in most instances, prior­it­ized rules.
  • A commis­sion size of between nine to 15 members to ensure geographic, polit­ical, and ethnic diversity. In addi­tion to allow­ing for greater repres­ent­at­ive­ness, larger commis­sions in our study also did better in safe­guard­ing against dead­lock and the risk of rogue-actor effect by ensur­ing that no indi­vidual commis­sioner had an outsized say. By contrast, the smal­ler commis­sions in our study tended to draw a larger number of complaints both about unrep­res­ent­at­ive­ness as well as more charges that the process had become tain­ted or other­wise gamed. On the other hand, too many commis­sion­ers can create logist­ical diffi­culties and make it harder to reach decisions.
  • Map-approval rules that facil­it­ate and incentiv­ize nego­ti­ation and comprom­ise, such as a require­ment that a map obtain at least some support from each major polit­ical block in order to win passage. By contrast, states that used a tiebreaker model popu­lar in earlier reforms exper­i­enced much lower levels of satis­fac­tion, mainly because the tiebreaker tended to end up siding with one party or the other, result­ing in a winner-take-all effect. Like­wise, commis­sions where one or more sides saw little risk from fail­ure had less success.
  • Strong trans­par­ency require­ments that make commis­sion proceed­ings as access­ible and assess­able as possible and encour­age public input. These require­ments were partic­u­larly help­ful in large, demo­graph­ic­ally complex juris­dic­tions where commis­sion­ers are unlikely to have up-to-date, firsthand know­ledge of all parts of the juris­dic­tion. By making sure that the work of the commis­sion does not occur behind closed doors, trans­par­ency require­ments help ensure that community and civil soci­ety groups were able to police the integ­rity of the process.
  • An enforce­able guar­an­tee of adequate fund­ing to enable the commis­sion to hire suffi­cient profes­sional staff, consult­ants, and experts of its choos­ing.
  • An appoint­ment time­frame that allows new commis­sion­ers adequate time to ramp up, hold public hear­ings, obtain feed­back on initial proposed maps, make any neces­sary adjust­ments, and draw final maps. Build­ing in suffi­cient time for commis­sion­ers to do their work can be espe­cially import­ant where commis­sion­ers are draw­ing multiple statewide maps (congres­sional, legis­lat­ive, etc.) 

Our research showed a clear divid­ing line between satis­fac­tion with commis­sions that had all or substan­tially all of these attrib­utes and those that did not. We found: 

  • Dissat­is­fac­tion was espe­cially great with commis­sions where a map could be approved over the unified objec­tion of a minor­ity based on the vote of a tiebreaker. While in theory, a tiebreaker might func­tion as a medi­ator and help broker a comprom­ise between major factions, the result in prac­tice has tended to be a dissat­is­fact­ory winner-take-all process. 
  • A wide range of stake­hold­ers also expressed much less satis­fac­tion with, and trust in, the results produced by commis­sions where elec­ted offi­cials decided who would serve on commis­sions or played a substan­tial role. 

By contrast, we also found that two concerns that often are raised in debates about creat­ing commis­sions did not seem to be major factors in the commis­sions we examined.

  • Citizen commis­sion­ers who were not closely involved with the polit­ical process seem by consensus to have performed compet­ently, despite concerns in some quar­ters that they would lack the soph­ist­ic­a­tion to navig­ate the complic­ated process of redis­trict­ing and deal as equals with polit­ical actors. Some concerns remain about whether the qual­ity and strength of citizen commis­sion­ers seen in this cycle will be repeated every decade absent concer­ted recruit­ment efforts, but this cycle at least suggests that where those efforts are under­taken that the result can be commis­sion­ers with both high integ­rity and skills.
  • Like­wise, the feel­ing among many stake­hold­ers was that citizen commis­sion­ers took the demands and interests of communit­ies of color seri­ously and made efforts to address them. Although communit­ies of color did not get all that they wanted, concerns that commis­sion­ers would prior­it­ize things like compact­ness or polit­ical bound­ar­ies over the repres­ent­a­tional concerns of communit­ies of color were not borne out in this map cycle.