By Nancy Marr
After each decennial census, the Constitution requires each state to re-draw the lines for election districts in order to allocate the number of Congressional house seats fairly if they have gained or lost population. In 42 states they are drawn by the state legislature, while in six states they are drawn by independent commissions and in seven states by politician commissions, where elected officials may serve as members.
We know that technology makes it possible to mine data for many socio-economic factors, but do you realize that candidates who are drawing the lines can access records on political party registrations of the voters in their district and which elections they’ve voted in to configure legislative districts that will protect their incumbency?
Drawing the lines so that members of the opposition party are diluted by being spread out among many districts (“cracking”) or concentrated in only one district (“packing”) denies the right to an equal vote to those in the minority party.
The Supreme Court had found complaints about apportionment to be a purely political question outside of their purview, but 1962’s decision in Baker v. Carr held that federal courts had a role in forcing states to correct inequities in the makeup of electoral districts, leading to the rule of “one person, one vote.” Under the Equal Protection clause in the Constitution, inequality in voting power is unconstitutional, especially when it affects the rights of minorities.
Advocates in many states have challenged gerrymandering in the courts, based on partisanship or race. Currently, many of the cases heard by the Supreme Court have been denied because the plaintiffs lacked standing, without a finding on whether the claims were justifiable.
The League of Women Voters of the United States and many state and local leagues have been involved in court cases with other groups or on their own. LWVUS is waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court on a gerrymandering case it brought in North Carolina, and leagues in Ohio, Missouri, Michigan, Tennessee and Texas have been involved in challenges to unfair districting or registration practices. The relief that is sought are often independent redistricting commissions to draw the new lines.
In 2008, Common Cause led an effort to pass Proposition 11 in California. It placed the power to draw electoral boundaries for state Assembly and state Senate districts in a Citizens Redistricting Commission, as opposed to the state Legislature. The act, proposed by the initiative process, amended both the Constitution of California and the Government Code.
It was passed by the voters in the November 2008 elections and was extended in 2010 to include U.S. House seats as well. It passed by a small margin despite opposition from the California Democratic Party, including Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi, and Asian, Hispanic and African American groups. They argued that it would not prevent politicians from hiding behind the selected bureaucrats, and would not guarantee protection for minority groups.
HR1, on the 2019 Congressional calendar, includes proposals that would mandate the use of independent commissions and the establishment of redistricting criteria, including racial fairness, protection for communities of interest and a ban on partisan gerrymandering. It would require public hearings before and after a plan is drafted, and a requirement that the responses to public comment be included alongside the final plan.
The Brennan Center for Justice interviewed a diverse group of 100 stakeholders who were involved with redistricting in state-level redistricting and municipal commissions. It concluded that commissions can significantly reduce many of the worst abuses associated with redistricting but only if the commissions are carefully designed and structured to promote independence and incentivize discussion and compromise.
Despite efforts to require the use of independent commissions, or amend state constitutions to prohibit gerrymandering, fair competition among candidates can only result if all voters believe their candidate can win. As long as information about party membership or voting patterns is available to those drawing lines, redistricting will not be a blind process.
Today’s technology and algorithms make it too easy to configure districts that include voters who would consistently return incumbents or elect officials of a given party. For our democracy to prosper, all citizens must have the opportunity to vote and to know that their vote will count.
Nancy Marr is first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.