Nonpartisan redistricting proponents are turning to midterm election referendums in key states where legislative leaders have signaled no desire to give up their authority on drawing political boundaries.
Voters in four states — Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Utah — will weigh in on ballot measures this November that would radically reshape the way congressional or legislative district lines are drawn.
In those states, legislative leaders have the power to draw state legislative and congressional district lines, authority critics say they have used to safeguard incumbents.
The initiatives, placed on the ballot by good-government groups and, in some states, by Democratic activists, would vest the power to draw district boundaries in the hands of independent commissions.
Earlier this year, Ohio voters approved a referendum placed on the primary ballot by state legislators, with the support of Gov. John Kasich (R), that created a commission to draw district lines.
The push to take authority away from state legislatures, coming two years before the next reapportionment process that begins with the 2020 Census, is part of a concerted effort from groups such as Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, as well as progressive groups hoping to regain a spot at the redistricting table, especially in states where Republican-dominated legislatures drew maps in 2012.
Those Republican-drawn maps helped solidify the GOP’s control of the House, retribution for Democratic-led gerrymanders that cemented that party’s control of Congress for four decades ending in 1994.
“Over the last several years, we’ve been really focusing on putting democracy measures on the ballot,” said Chris Melody Fields Figueredo, who runs the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a national clearinghouse for liberal ballot initiatives. Voters “understand gerrymandering and they understand rigging the system. People want [the redistricting process] to be fair and independent.”
To end the tit-for-tat partisan gerrymandering, reformers want to hand control to independent boards, members of which would be chosen with careful attention to their past political activity.
The Colorado initiative would create a 12-member board, four of whom would have to be voters unaffiliated with either party. At least two of those unaffiliated voters would have to be a part of a supermajority vote to ratify new boundaries, a step supporters say would ensure bipartisan and independent buy-in.
“There’s been a good recent history of collaborative good-government type work, and this really fits in that frame,” said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for the redistricting reform campaign. “We need to make sure that the gears of our small-d democratic system are working well.”
In Michigan, reform backers turned in more than 428,000 signatures, which they gathered in just 110 days, far more than the number necessary to qualify for the November ballot. Katie Fahey, who leads the group that sponsored the initiative, Voters Not Politicians, said the quick signature-collecting process is evidence that voters want a change.
“Nobody thinks that their politicians are thinking about them,” Fahey said. “Nobody wants to feel like our elections are rigged. And they are. We have political parties that are purposely trying to rig them to benefit themselves.”
In states including North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas, Florida and Virginia, Democrats have led years of legal challenges to Republican-drawn maps, some of which made it to the Supreme Court. Legislatures are still dealing with the fallout from many of those suits; a federal court in North Carolina only recently gave the state approval to hold this year’s elections under district lines it had ruled unconstitutional, and the Virginia legislature adjourned a special session called by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) without drawing new lines to remedy districts another court found unconstitutional.
Some Republicans in states where redistricting measures are on the ballot are skeptical of the good-government intent. In purple-state Michigan, Republican control of the legislature during the last redistricting process drew maps that gave the GOP nine of 14 U.S. House districts.
“This is nothing more than a political ploy by the Democrats to create a system to allow them to gerrymander districts,” said Saul Anuzis, a GOP strategist and former chairman of the state Republican Party.
The decennial redistricting process has been a combative political sport since the early days of the republic, when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry, who later served as vice president, drew district boundaries benefitting his Democratic-Republican Party at the expense of rival Federalists.
Legislatures have reformed the process in fits and starts over the last two centuries, beginning in 1850, when Ohio’s new constitution prescribed the manner in which the state’s district lines would be drawn. Supreme Court decisions about district lines and equal populations in the 1960s and 1970s prompted another round of reforms in states such as Iowa, Washington and Michigan.
Most of those reforms created commissions like Ohio’s early overhaul, which handed the power to draw district lines to partisan politicians. Some commissions were made up of members appointed by legislative leaders of both major parties, said Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida.
“They weren’t actually trying to make the commissions independent of the legislature,” McDonald said. “They were concentrating power in the hands of political leaders.”
In Iowa, McDonald said, legislators got so tired of having their maps overturned by courts that they handed control to legislative staff, who now draw maps with only limited input from elected officials.
A new wave of initiatives that created truly independent redistricting boards began in 2000, when Arizona voters approved an overhaul of the redistricting process. California followed soon after. In both states, the redistricting process that led to the 2012 maps was handled in public meetings, with input from the general public.
In other states, reform measures required those conducting the redistricting process to draw maps with an eye toward fairness, or districts that would produce competitive races. Florida and Pennsylvania added requirements that maps be drawn fairly, and both states’ Supreme Courts have cited that requirement in striking down what they labeled unfair maps.
The new round of ballot measures this year may spark another wave of overhauls in other states. Fahey, the Michigan strategist, said she had already fielded phone calls from activists in other states who may mount their own campaigns before the next apportionment and redistricting phase begins in two years.
“Otherwise, it’s 10 years’ worth of elections that will continue to minimize voters’ voices in general,” Fahey said.
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