Redistricting, the true battle for American political power, is about to begin. State legislators and governors who were elected in the 2020 election also won control over the influential process of drawing new state legislative and congressional maps. The consequences of these maps will define the state of political play until 2031. Citizens should demand an honest and transparent process that ensures fairness in representation. Legislatures should draw US House districts and state legislative districts as equally as possible, as outlined by the US Constitution, which mandates the process.
New political maps are drawn every 10 years following the census and reapportionment of the US House. Too many politicians and partisans, however, look to this process with naked self-interest, seeing the opportunity to scribble their own districts, choose their own voters, and lock in power for themselves and their party for the following decade. That’s when redistricting becomes gerrymandering — the toxic science of cracking and packing the other side’s votes with ”surgical precision” (as described in one recent federal appeals court decision), aided by today’s big data, artificial intelligence, and sophisticated mapping software — allowing a party to retain power, even with fewer votes. This result is far too many safe, uncompetitive districts, which leads to the artificial elevation of the party activist bases that dominate primaries.
But redistricting need not be partisan blood sport if the people demand otherwise. A bipartisan compromise to make a better redistricting process was recently passed by public referendum in Virginia after citizens organized, lobbied lawmakers, and demanded honest, fair maps. This is proof that politicians will reform themselves when voters show that they are watching. Now that the Supreme Court has declared partisan gerrymandering a strictly political issue, closing the federal courthouse to these claims, only vigilant citizens can prevent a festival of partisan gerrymandering from ensuing next year.
There are best practices deadly to gerrymandering that Americans must demand of their elected leaders.
▪ A fair process begins with genuine openness and transparency. Citizens deserve to be heard about which communities need to be held together for economic or cultural reasons. Public hearings must be held across the state so lawmakers and mapmakers can listen. During the coronavirus pandemic, these hearings must be accessible virtually.
▪ Lawmakers must be forthright and provide the public with all political and geographic data they are using to draw lines. All work on these maps should be part of the public record, made available to citizens via sunlight laws. During the last decade, various draft maps and frank e-mail conversations among politicians and operatives provided smoking-gun evidence as to partisan intent. Those records must be preserved to protect the process from partisan influence.
▪ States should offer a second period for public comment after mapmakers draw the maps. In 2011, several states introduced redistricting map legislation under cover of darkness, then enacted them into law without the opportunity for citizens or the media to examine them in advance. A second public comment period gives citizens an opportunity to test the partisanship of maps by comparing them against tens of thousands of neutral, nonpartisan maps that can be drawn quickly by computers. Indeed, lawmakers should be required to take this step themselves. The technology that allows partisans to draw exacting lines is a double-edged sword and can likewise be used to expose chicanery.
▪ Lawmakers should justify their maps with a report that explains the compelling interest behind the design of each district. In 2011, Republicans crafted a sprawling monstrosity in Pennsylvania’s Seventh Congressional District that resembled Donald Duck kicking Goofy. In Maryland, Democrats drew a nutty district that they pretended served commuters alongside twisty I-270. Force politicians to justify their work, and they will be forced to do better.
▪ Finally, an extreme map should not be allowed to stand for a decade if it allows minority rule. If maps produce a result where a party wins control of the legislature or a congressional delegation with fewer votes, this should trigger an automatic review by a neutral party, such as the judiciary. This neutral party can then assess whether or not a redraw is necessary for fairness in representation.
In state after state, the maps drawn last decade withstood electoral waves, political shifts, and population change, producing the results intended by the partisans who drew them. This isn’t politics as usual. And it can’t be to the victors of one election go the spoils for a decade. We don’t elect members of Congress and state legislators to 10-year terms. They need to be responsive to us. That begins with fair maps.
David Daley is author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count,” and is a senior fellow at FairVote. Sarah E. Hunt is cofounder and CEO of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. Previously, she was a director at the American Legislative Exchange Council and a Republican election lawyer.