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National Overview of Redistricting: Who draws the lines?

Published: June 1, 2010

Each state decides for itself who draws its district lines, which has led to a few differ­ent models: state legis­lature, polit­ical commis­sions and inde­pend­ent comis­sions

State legis­lature

  • In 37 states, the state legis­lature has the power to draw the lines of state legis­lat­ive districts.  In each of these states, and six others, the legis­lature also draws congres­sional district lines. 

  • Governor’s veto.  In most of these states, district lines are passed like other laws, which means that the governor has the chance to veto a redis­trict­ing map.  The governor has no veto power over the legis­lature’s decision in just five states (CT, FL, MD, MS, NC).

  • Super­ma­jor­ity.  In both CT and ME, redis­trict­ing maps must be passed by a 2/3 major­ity.

  • Courts.  Most states have a dead­line for draw­ing district lines, set by the state consti­tu­tion.  If the legis­lature can’t agree on a map before the dead­line, state or federal courts may step in to make sure that the district lines are set before the next elec­tion.  Courts also some­times draw maps of their own to remedy legal viol­a­tions in maps passed by the legis­lature.

  • Advis­ory commis­sions.  Five states (IA, ME, NY, RI, VT) appoint commis­sions to help advise the legis­lature; in most cases, the legis­lature can ignore their recom­mend­a­tions.  In Iowa, however, a nonpar­tisan bureau draws draft lines for the legis­lature to accept or reject as is; only after the legis­lature has rejec­ted two sets of plans can it draw districts as it pleases.  So far, the Iowa legis­lature hasn’t used its author­ity to drawn its own maps from scratch.

  • Backup commis­sions.  In seven states, there are special backup proced­ures to draw state district lines if the legis­lature fails to do so.  In MD, the Governor’s proposal becomes the default plan; in OR, the job falls to the Secret­ary of State.  Each of the other five states forms a backup commis­sion.  In CT and IL, the backup commis­sion is made up of people selec­ted by the legis­lat­ive lead­er­ship.  In MS, OK, and TX, the backup commis­sion is made up of specific statewide elec­ted offi­cials, like the State Treas­urer or state Attor­ney General.

Politi­cian commis­sions

  • Politi­cian commis­sions draw state legis­lat­ive districts in seven states (AR, CO, HI, MO, NJ, OH, PA).  These commis­sions don’t prohibit elec­ted offi­cials from serving as members, but they do take redis­trict­ing out of the hands of the legis­lature as a whole. 

  • Each politi­cian commis­sion is designed differ­ently.  In AR and OH, specific statewide elec­ted offi­cials have seats on the commis­sion.  In the other states, the legis­lat­ive or party lead­er­ship nomin­ates commis­sion­ers, usually with balanced numbers from each party, and some­times with help from the Governor or Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court.

Inde­pend­ent Commis­sions

  • Six states (AK, AZ, CA, ID, MT, WA) currently conduct state redis­trict­ing through inde­pend­ent commis­sions, in which no indi­vidual draw­ing the lines can be a legis­lator or public offi­cial.  AZ and CA also bar legis­lat­ive staff from serving on the commis­sion; CA, ID, and WA bar lobby­ists from serving on the commis­sion.

  • These six states also prevent commis­sion­ers from running for office in the districts they draw, at least for a few years after they draw the lines. 

  • Together, the restric­tions on who can be a commis­sioner and the restric­tions on running for office mean that even though legis­lat­ors may have a role in pick­ing commis­sion­ers, neither legis­lat­ors nor candid­ates draw their own district lines them­selves

The process for choos­ing the commis­sion­ers is slightly differ­ent in each state:

  • Alaska:  The Governor chooses two commis­sion­ers, the state Senate and House major­ity lead­ers each choose one, and the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court chooses one. 

  • Arizona: The four legis­lat­ive major­ity and minor­ity lead­ers each choose one commis­sioner from a pool of 25 nomin­ees chosen by the state’s panel for nomin­at­ing appel­late judges.  Those four commis­sion­ers then select a fifth tiebreaker who is not registered in the same party as any other commis­sioner.

  • Cali­for­nia: State audit­ors choose 20 Demo­crats, 20 Repub­lic­ans, and 20 who are neither, and the four legis­lat­ive lead­ers each cut two people from each pool.  Eight commis­sion­ers (3 Demo­crats, 3 Repub­lic­ans, 2 neither) are chosen randomly from the remain­ing nomin­ees; those eight choose six colleagues (2 Demo­crats, 2 Repub­lic­ans, 2 neither).  A map can only pass if it gets nine votes: 3 Demo­crats, 3 Repub­lic­ans, and 3 neither.

  • Idaho: The four legis­lat­ive lead­ers each choose one commis­sioner, and the state party chairs each choose one more, for a total of six.
  • Montana: The four legis­lat­ive lead­ers each choose one commis­sioner, with geographic balance.  Those four commis­sion­ers then choose a fifth tiebreaker.
  • Wash­ing­ton: The four legis­lat­ive lead­ers each choose one commis­sioner; those four then choose a fifth chair­per­son, who does not vote on the final map.  Once the commis­sion has drawn a map, the legis­lature may tweak the lines; however, it needs a 2/3 vote to do so, and the changes can only affect 2% of the popu­la­tion in any given district.