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Redistricting Reform Gains Momentum in 2016

Significant efforts are underway in at least nine states, the most in recent history.

  • Eric Petry
January 25, 2016

2016 could be a block­buster year for redis­trict­ing reform. Signi­fic­ant efforts have been launched in at least ten states, the most in recent memory. A ballot initi­at­ive creat­ing an inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sion is set to go before South Dakota voters in Novem­ber, and a peti­tion drive for a commis­sion is well under­way in Illinois. Build­ing on reform efforts from last year, Color­ado may also have a ballot initi­at­ive this fall, and legis­latures in Mary­land and Ohio could address redis­trict­ing in 2016. New propos­als also have been put forward in Flor­ida, Geor­gia, New Hamp­shire, Utah, and Virginia.

There are many reas­ons for this groundswell of redis­trict­ing reform, but one of them seems to be a grow­ing recog­ni­tion and accept­ance among elec­ted offi­cials and the Amer­ican people that improv­ing the redis­trict­ing process is a crit­ical part of fixing our demo­cracy. Even Pres­id­ent Obama called atten­tion to the prob­lem of partisan gerry­man­der­ing in his State of the Union address. “We’ve got to end the prac­tice of draw­ing our congres­sional districts so that politi­cians can pick their voters and not the other way around,” he said. This momentum comes not a moment too soon. With the 2020 Census quickly approach­ing, time is begin­ning to run short for states to imple­ment new systems before the next round of redis­trict­ing.

As the year progresses, the Bren­nan Center will continue to monitor these propos­als, as well as others that are intro­duced.

2016 Ballot Initi­at­ives


The non-profit Inde­pend­ent Maps is lead­ing the push in Illinois and has already collec­ted more than 483,000 signa­tures to peti­tion for a ballot initi­at­ive, far more than the 290,000 required. Their goal is to collect 600,000 signa­tures by the May dead­line to ensure the peti­tion survives any chal­lenges ques­tion­ing the valid­ity of the peti­tion’s signa­tures.

Inde­pend­ent Maps’ proposal would amend the state consti­tu­tion to create an 11-member non-partisan, inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sion to draw state legis­lat­ive districts. Seven commis­sion­ers would be randomly selec­ted from a pool of applic­ants compiled by an inde­pend­ent review panel. Lead­ers of the state legis­lature would select the final four commis­sion­ers from the remain­ing pool of applic­ants based on their contri­bu­tion to the commis­sion’s demo­graphic and geographic diversity. At least three of the commis­sion­ers must not be affil­i­ated with any of the major polit­ical parties.

Seven of the 11 commis­sion­ers would have to approve a final redis­trict­ing plan, includ­ing at least two Demo­crats, two Repub­lic­ans, and three inde­pend­ents. This approval mech­an­ism is similar to the one in Cali­for­nia, and is designed to force mapdraw­ers to collab­or­ate and comprom­ise.

The initi­at­ive also includes several new rules for draw­ing district lines, includ­ing protec­tions for racial and language minor­it­ies, polit­ical subdi­vi­sions, and communit­ies of shared social or economic interests. It would also prohibit the commis­sion from draw­ing districts to favor a partic­u­lar polit­ical party, group, or person.

Inde­pend­ent Maps has drawn a broad base of support. Groups endors­ing the reform amend­ment include the Latino Policy Forum, several city and county Cham­bers of Commerce, the League of Women Voters of Illinois, the Illinois Liber­tarian Party, as well as community and neigh­bor­hood organ­iz­a­tions like SOUL (South­siders Organ­ized for Unity and Liber­a­tion), Young Lead­ers Alli­ance, Grace Haitian Alli­ance Church, and A Knock at Midnight.

The move­ment is not without oppos­i­tion, however. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), who is also state Demo­cratic Party chair, has staunchly opposed Inde­pend­ent Maps. He success­fully sued to block a redis­trict­ing amend­ment in 2014 and has expressed his concerns that inde­pend­ent commis­sions can harm minor­ity repres­ent­a­tion. These points have been echoed by a polit­ical commit­tee, People’s Map, which opposes the amend­ment. The group has back­ing from the Chicago Teach­ers Union, the Service Employ­ees Union Inter­na­tional Health­care, and several local minor­ity civic organ­iz­a­tions.

South Dakota

The South Dakota Farm­ers Union moun­ted a success­ful peti­tion drive to get a consti­tu­tional amend­ment on the 2016 ballot. They collec­ted more than 43,000 signa­tures, well over the threshold of 28,000 they needed to get the ballot meas­ure approved. After veri­fy­ing the signa­tures at the end of Decem­ber, Secret­ary of State Shantel Krebs (R) certi­fied the amend­ment for the general elec­tion.

The proposal would create a nine-member inde­pend­ent commis­sion. The commis­sion­ers would be selec­ted from a pool of 30 applic­ants by the State Board of Elec­tions, with no more than three of the commis­sion­ers from the same polit­ical party. To be eligible, applic­ants must not have held public office for three years before the redis­trict­ing cycle and commis­sion­ers are barred from running for office three years follow­ing redis­trict­ing.

A simple major­ity of commis­sion­ers is required to approve a final redis­trict­ing plan.


Continu­ing Efforts from 2015


A bipar­tisan commis­sion on redis­trict­ing created by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) called for sweep­ing reform late last year. Noting that Mary­land is one of most gerry­mandered states in the coun­try, the panel recom­men­ded creat­ing a nine-member inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sion composed of three Demo­crats, three Repub­lic­ans, and three inde­pend­ents. Hogan is expec­ted to press the legis­lature for redis­trict­ing reform this year, a goal suppor­ted by civic groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, but many Demo­crats in the General Assembly have expressed reluct­ance to change the system that is currently in place.


Although the language has not been final­ized, a ballot proposal filed in Decem­ber would create a12-member bipar­tisan redis­trict­ing commis­sion. Eight members would be appoin­ted by the lead­er­ship of the state legis­lature, and those eight would then select four addi­tional commis­sion­ers who must not be affil­i­ated with any polit­ical party. Registered lobby­ists, current members of Congress, and current state legis­lat­ors would be prohib­ited from serving on the commis­sion. At least eight commis­sion­ers would have to approve a final redis­trict­ing map for it to go into effect. If the commis­sion is unable to settle on a district plan, the respons­ib­il­ity would shift to the Color­ado Supreme Court.

The proposal also includes new mapdraw­ing criteria that advoc­ates say would elim­in­ate polit­ical influ­ence and partisan gerry­man­der­ing. But oppon­ents of the meas­ure claim that it would hurt minor­it­ies because it prevents districts from being drawn to bolster the voting strength of racial minor­ity groups. For the initi­at­ive to appear on the ballot in Novem­ber, support­ers must collect 98,000 signa­tures by August.


Last Novem­ber, Ohio voters over­whelm­ingly approved the form­a­tion of a seven-member bipar­tisan commis­sion to handle state legis­lat­ive redis­trict­ing. The members of the commis­sion are the governor, the state auditor, the secret­ary of state, and four commis­sion­ers appoin­ted by the state legis­lature.

Now, advoc­ates and some legis­lat­ors are lobby­ing to have the same commis­sion handle congres­sional redis­trict­ing. Both Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who calls gerry­man­der­ing “the biggest prob­lem we have,” and Secret­ary of State Jon Husted (R), support redis­trict­ing reform. The Ohio Consti­tu­tion Modern­iz­a­tion Commis­sion, which makes recom­mend­a­tions for amend­ments to the state legis­lature, also backs the calls for reform. The chair of the commit­tee hand­ling redis­trict­ing agrees that Ohio needs to change how congres­sional districts are drawn and has said he wants to move reform “as quickly as we can.”

This support could help propel congres­sional redis­trict­ing propos­als in the Ohio House and Senate. The resol­u­tions are sponsored by a bipar­tisan group of lawmakers includ­ing Reps. Kath­leen Clyde (D-Kent) and Michael Curtin (D-Marble Cliff), and Sens. Frank LaRose (R-Copely) and Tom Sawyer (D-Akron).

Despite all the forward momentum, one key lawmaker wants delay. House Speaker Cliff Rosen­ber­ger (R-Clarks­ville) first wants to see how the new commis­sion handles state legis­lat­ive redis­trict­ing, which will not happen until the next Census in 2020. That means a consti­tu­tional amend­ment, which must be approved by the voters, could not appear on the ballot until 2021 at the earli­est, and likely would not take effect until the next congres­sional redis­trict­ing in 2030.

Other Reform Efforts


When Flor­ida last attemp­ted to draw state legis­lat­ive lines in 2012, it touched off a battle that involved four trials, eight rulings from the Flor­ida Supreme Court, and three special sessions of the legis­lature. The struggle only ended last week when the legis­lature finally capit­u­lated to a court redraw­ing of all 40 districts in the state senate.

Not surpris­ingly, there are lawmakers who do not want to repeat the exper­i­ence. State Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) has proposed a consti­tu­tional amend­ment that would create a 12-member inde­pend­ent commis­sion consist­ing of four Demo­crats, four Repub­lic­ans, and four inde­pend­ents chosen at random from a pool of applic­ants. A compan­ion bill has been intro­duced in the House. However, amend­ing the Flor­ida consti­tu­tion through the legis­lature is not easy. First, the meas­ure must win support from 60 percent legis­lat­ors in both houses, and then win approval of 60 percent of the voters.


Three Demo­cratic lawmakers from the Atlanta area have filed two bills on redis­trict­ing. One meas­ure would estab­lish a 14-member redis­trict­ing commis­sion, with five members from each party and four inde­pend­ents. The second bill would create new protec­tions for language and racial minor­it­ies and bar mapdraw­ers from draw­ing district lines to bene­fit a partic­u­lar party.

New Hamp­shire

A bill pending in the House of Repres­ent­at­ives would create a seven-member advis­ory redis­trict­ing commis­sion and create new rules prohib­it­ing mapdraw­ers from draw­ing district lines to advance the interests of any polit­ical party. The commis­sion would not have final say over maps, however. Any district plan would have to win approval from both houses of the legis­lature.


Lawmakers in Utah intro­duced two redis­trict­ing bills to change how state legis­lat­ive districts are drawn. One proposal would imple­ment new rules  to prevent mapdraw­ers from split­ting polit­ical subdi­vi­sions between multiple districts. The other bill would create a seven-member advis­ory commis­sion to draw non-bind­ing maps and submit them to the legis­lature for consid­er­a­tion. 


A bipar­tisan group of lawmakers in Virginia sponsored a bill that would leave mapdraw­ing in the hands of the legis­lature, but set new rules for draw­ing districts. Under the new mapdraw­ing criteria, lines could not be drawn to favor or disfa­vor any polit­ical party, incum­bent, or candid­ate, and should protect communit­ies of interest and minor­ity groups.

(Photo: Think­stock)