Every 10 years, the Census Bureau takes a count of Americans, and like clockwork, good-government groups and politicians across the country try to reshape the redistricting process in their states before the bureau announces how their delegations may shrink or grow.
In 2010 those efforts had mixed results, with Florida and California having the most success: Redistricting reform passed by ballot initiative in November. Other states, trying to pass changes through the normal legislative process, were not so fortunate.
Regardless, the goals of redistricting reform cross state and party lines. Reformers hope to create districts that keep racially and economically similar groups together, have contiguous boundaries and won’t give incumbents undue advantages.
For those reasons, lawmakers may be the wrong people to make over the system. Though legislators in state capitals and in Washington, D.C., have attempted to change the partisan way that redistricting has been done, it’s hard to persuade politicians who can redraw their own districts to hand that power over to someone else. Even though Florida voters approved constitutional amendments that take partisanship out of the line-drawing process, a Republican Member and a Democratic Member have filed a lawsuit with a claim that the amendments go too far.
“The reason that people push for taking this out of the hands of the Legislature is there really is an inherent conflict of interest here where politicians are getting to custom-design which voters they want in their districts,” said Gerry Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and a veteran of redistricting-related court battles.
In Florida, voters approved by 63 percent two ballot initiatives amending the state’s constitution regarding redrawing the state’s legislative and Congressional districts. FairDistrictsFlorida.org, with politicians including former Sen. Bob Graham (D), former Attorney General Janet Reno (D), former state Comptroller Bob Milligan (R) and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz (I) at the helm, promoted the initiative. The Congressional amendment would require legislators to draw lines that don’t favor incumbents or certain parties and are contiguous and compact.
But despite broad support for the measure on Election Day, Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) and Corrine Brown (D) filed suit against it immediately after the election.
“You can’t make it part of the constitution to say that these standards are standards that the legislature must carry out,” their attorney, Stephen Cody, told Roll Call.
State legislators are free to consider those priorities but shouldn’t be required to, Cody said. He cited complications with the Voting Rights Act as additional concerns.
Redistricting reform isn’t an issue either party owns. In 2011 Republicans will control both legislative bodies and the governor’s office in Florida, but in California, Democrats will control both legislative bodies and the governor’s office.
California first passed a proposition that would change redistricting for state legislative lines in 2008, and another proposition expanded it to Congressional district lines in 2010. The state is now nearing the end of the complicated process of selecting a 14-member Citizens Redistricting Commission. The process began with about 30,000 applicants, and the state auditor’s office whittled it down to 60. State legislators from each party were allowed to veto up to 24 applicants from those 60, and then from the remaining group, eight were chosen in a lottery. Those eight will select the remaining six to fill out the board.
The goal is for the commission to be racially and geographically diverse. Elected officials and their relatives aren’t allowed to serve on the commission, but they can offer thoughts during public comment, just like any other citizen.
The Golden State’s process has been better than expected so far, said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, one of the groups that led the reform efforts. She said interest in redistricting reform has grown, especially following a failed ballot initiative in 2005 and later attempts to move a bill through the Legislature.
“Each year the Legislature balked and played some little games with us where they would lose the bill or not make it out of some committee or whatever so that, over the course of three years, we finally decided to submit our own initiative,” she said.
The initiative process is crucial to effect change, Feng said.
“It’s hard to imagine a state that doesn’t have an initiative process reforming itself because it’s hard to build a majority around it,” she said.
In Indiana, Secretary of State Todd Rokita made his attempt at reforming the system without the help of a ballot initiative. Rokita, a Republican elected to a U.S. House seat in November, pushed a bill that would have kept similar communities intact, followed existing political boundaries and not factored in incumbents’ home addresses. The bill never made it to Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels’ desk, and Republicans will have sizable majorities in both chambers of the Legislature. Despite the eventual failure of the bill that session, Rokita got a lot of positive publicity from his efforts.
Ultimately, after a redistricting reform bill has passed into law, one of the most telling measures of its success is whether it attracts lawsuits and then holds up in court.
“All roads in redistricting lead to the courthouse because the stakes are so high, for one thing,” Hebert said. “Parties can’t sit back and let the political gerrymander that really harms a lot of their incumbents not get challenged.”