One of this nation’s basic principles is that its citizens elect their representatives in Congress and state legislatures. Since state legislators and US House members are elected by district, the composition and shape of those districts and the process for drawing them are important. However, the political party in power often creates or redraws districts to maximize its own advantage. This practice, gerrymandering, has existed since the early 19th century. But more recently, new mapping technologies are enabling political parties to increase their partisan gains as never before by manipulating district lines down to the block or household level. As a result, electoral competitiveness has declined significantly. For example, only about 33 of the 435 US House districts are truly competitive, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Not only does gerrymandering effectively disenfranchise many voters, especially independents and members of the minority party in a district, but it also often leads to the election of candidates who are less moderate than the district’s population, thereby contributing to the gridlock that increasingly afflicts the nation’s legislative bodies.
Seven states have established independent nonpartisan or multiparty commissions as a way to reduce partisanship in the process of drawing congressional and/or state legislative districts. In Arizona and Iowa, such redistricting systems have produced legislative districts that are compact, contiguous, and reflective of their communities. In both states, bipartisan commissions that do not include legislators, lobbyists, or potential candidates draw districts based on communities of shared interest rather than on incumbency or party affiliation. Similarly, Californians passed an initiative in 2008 to establish an independent citizens’ commission to redraw legislative districts, which has helped to decrease gridlock and hold legislators more accountable. Efforts are underway in at least another half-dozen states to establish similar commissions either through ballot initiatives or legislation. In 2015, redistricting reform efforts were given a significant boost when the US Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of an Arizona ballot initiative to remove state legislators from the process of drawing district lines in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have required districts to adhere to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees that every vote has equal weight. Under the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the courts also have prohibited efforts to diminish the voting rights of people from racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination, including dispersing such voters among districts. In 2016, the Supreme Court reinforced these trends with two unanimous decisions. In Evenwel v. Abbott, the Court upheld the “one person, one vote” principle, requiring state legislative districts to be drawn by total population, not total number of voters. In Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Court held that states may consider compliance with the federal VRA when redistricting.
In the 1986 case, Davis v. Bandemer, the Supreme Court recognized that courts have the power to determine the constitutionality of various forms of gerrymandering. Courts, however, have subsequently struggled to consistently identify instances of unconstitutional gerrymandering. A redistricting case from Wisconsin, Whitford v. Nichol, now before the US Seventh Court of Appeals, will test a new standard called the “efficiency gap,” which measures the percentage of votes that do not effectively count when a district is heavily dominated by one party. An analysis of 800 state legislative elections over the past 40 years using the efficiency gap method found that the average gap from redistricting was zero. But the gap under Wisconsin’s redistricting plan was 13 percent (ranking 28th worst out of 800), which plaintiffs in the case contend violates voters’ rights to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. If accepted by the court, the efficiency gap standard could be used to challenge recent redistricting plans in over a half-dozen states.
States should enact legislation that vests the authority for redrawing districts in an independent commission that has a diverse membership (including representation of racial and ethnic groups that have experienced discrimination and other communities that have faced historical patterns of discrimination), is independent, and represents the state geographically and demographically.
The redistricting process should be transparent and provide a meaningful opportunity for interested parties and the public to participate effectively
Characteristics of voting districts
In descending order of priority, redistricting should result in districts that:
- have equal populations, in accordance with federal constitutional standards;
- comply with the VRA;
- are contiguous;
- respect communities of interest, city and county boundaries, and visible geographic features; and
- are geographically compact.