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Policy Solution

A Better Way to Draw Districts

Key Point: The success of a commission depends largely on its structure and its internal system of checks and balances.

Published: December 12, 2019
Illustration of drawing district lines
Derek Brahney

After the census every 10 years, states redraw legis­lat­ive and congres­sional district bound­ar­ies. This is often a fraught process, with massive poten­tial for abuse. Most states currently draw districts through their ordin­ary legis­lat­ive process, though there are a number of vari­ations. Typic­ally, each cham­ber of the state legis­lature passes maps by a simple major­ity vote, and the governor can veto the result.

Prob­lems arise when state govern­ment is controlled by a single party. Even if the advant­age is slim, the redis­trict­ing process can then be subver­ted for partisan gain or to discrim­in­ate against racial and ethnic minor­it­ies, with maps drawn behind closed doors and with little or no public input.

Inde­pend­ent redis­trict­ing commis­sions are an effect­ive solu­tion against such abuses. But some work better than others. The success of a commis­sion depends largely on its struc­ture and its internal system of checks and balances. Care­fully design­ing a commis­sion to promote core values like inde­pend­ence, inclus­iv­ity, good-faith nego­ti­ation, and trans­par­ency is crit­ical to fair redis­trict­ing that protects community interests and guards against partisan and racial gerry­man­der­ing.

This annot­ated guide and accom­pa­ny­ing model bill lay out the internal design and logic of a redis­trict­ing commis­sion that promotes these values. This sample language can, with minimal adjust­ment, be adap­ted to account for state-specific needs and polit­ical real­it­ies.