The Drama Surrounding Independent Redistricting Commissions

Nonpartisan commissions were supposed to take the politics out of redrawing legislative boundaries. But the process isn't going as planned everywhere.
Independent redistricting commissions are falling short of expectations set by Democrats who initially backed them.
Independent redistricting commissions are falling short of expectations set by Democrats who initially backed them.
Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost

DETROIT — Natalie Bien-Aime had only 90 seconds to make her case to Michigan’s citizen-led redistricting commission about why its proposed congressional and state legislative maps simply don’t work.

“I believe they do not represent the best interests of African American voters,” the 51-year-old health care consultant told the panel during a public hearing this week, before a phone timer dinged, abruptly ending her remarks.

“We have a voice and we don’t want to lose our voice,” she said afterward, seated in a socially distanced audience near several Black activists waving white and purple “Fair Maps Now!” signs at Detroit’s TCF Center.

Bien-Aime was No. 4 of 116 speakers who objected overwhelmingly to the commission’s proposals for new voting districts. They argued the panel’s drafts violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark law outlawing racial discrimination in voting, by breaking up majority-Black districts in the nation’s largest majority-Black city.

Another speaker was more pointed: “Start over. These maps are garbage.”

This is not necessarily what reformers had envisioned in 2018, when Michigan voters passed a constitutional amendment to stamp out extreme partisan gerrymandering with the creation of a 13-member independent redistricting commission.

“It’s been frustrating to watch the commission draw these maps,” said Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. “They spent a good deal of time drawing maps without considering partisan fairness and without considering the Voting Rights Act, and came up with maps that simply don’t meet those standards.”

Michigan activists object to proposed state legislative and congressional maps at a hearing in Detroit on Oct. 20. The maps, they argue, would dilute votes in the nation's largest Black-majority city.
Michigan activists object to proposed state legislative and congressional maps at a hearing in Detroit on Oct. 20. The maps, they argue, would dilute votes in the nation's largest Black-majority city.
Liz Skalka/HuffPost

Michigan is just one state where new bodies charged with redrawing legislative boundaries for the next decade are falling short of expectations — particularly those set by Democrats who championed these reforms in response to out-of-control GOP gerrymandering following Republicans’ 2010 midterm sweep.

Kelly Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the reform group launched by former Attorney General Eric Holder, defended independent commissions, even if they’re preventing Democrats from reaping the partisan advantages of gerrymandering to the degree Republicans have.

“By putting commissions in place across the country, Democrats are saying that we’re not afraid of voters, we’re not afraid of a fair process, and we don’t need to cheat to win,” Burton told HuffPost in a statement. “On net, you do get fairer maps out of commissions, even though not all of them are created equal.”

As for Michigan, “the commission’s maps need improvement so they more closely adhere to the guidelines in the state constitution,” Burton said, pointing out that an expert witness testified the legislative maps are more favorable to Republicans.

Nationwide, there’s a lot riding on redistricting for Democrats, who face losing their thin House majority in 2022 (the president’s party usually cedes ground in the midterms anyway) and the specter of Donald Trump’s return in 2024.

For their part, Republicans succeeded at cementing their power in the last redistricting and beating back good-government reforms, positioning themselves strongly a decade later. In Texas, the only state to gain two congressional seats after the 2020 census, GOP lawmakers resisted attempts to swipe their power for an independent commission. The result is a congressional map that doesn’t expand the GOP’s footprint, but creates safer districts for its incumbents. Experts are also closely following Georgia, another expanding state where Republicans hold the reins in redistricting. In both states, population gains were driven largely by communities of color that are considered more Democratic-leaning.

“Not all reforms are created equal.”

- Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennen Center

Despite GOP dominance in statehouses, nearly a dozen states are using independent commissions or reformed systems instead of their legislatures to draft new boundaries for 40% of the nation’s House seats. The changes are designed to discourage extreme partisanship and create more balanced maps. But not every commission functions the same way, and there’s still plenty of drama surrounding the process.

“Not all reforms are created equal,” said Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “I don’t necessarily want to throw anybody under the bus yet because things still are going forward, but there’s been a lot of acrimony on bipartisan as opposed to independent commissions.”

In Colorado, a blue-trending state where Democrats control the legislature and governorship, the party handed over control of redistricting to a citizen-led commission — instead of using its position of power to help bolster its House majority. With an extra seat thanks to congressional reapportionment, the commission returned a map with four Democratic seats, three Republican seats, and one toss-up, potentially creating an equal number of seats for both parties in a state President Joe Biden won by over 13 percentage points in 2020.

In Virginia, a bipartisan panel composed of both citizens and state legislators devolved into partisan chaos over state legislative maps and punted that job to the Virginia Supreme Court. Now Democrats are pushing back against a proposed congressional map that creates an even split where they currently have a 7-4 edge.

In Michigan, a presidential battleground with a GOP legislature and Democratic governor, Democrats are objecting to state legislative maps projected to give Republicans an advantage. At the same time, they acknowledge they’re better off than with the alternative: extreme gerrymanders handed down by Republicans in Lansing.

“This independent commission is absolutely better than having legislators drawing their own maps — but it’s still not where it should be,” Barnes said.

That’s the feeling for many in Michigan’s largest metro area, said Michael Joseph, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists in Detroit. At the hearing this week, Joseph argued against diluting majority-minority districts anchored in Detroit, and said voters in these districts deserve representatives from their own communities, not the suburbs. (The commission has defended the maps, saying they consulted experts in their interpretation of the Voting Rights Act and are trying to balance competing interests and guidelines.)

“Your plan, for the next 10 years, will deny Black and brown [constituents] in Michigan the opportunity to select representatives from their neighborhoods” to send to Washington or their school boards, Joseph told the commissioners.

Michigan currently has 17 majority-Black voting districts: two for Congress (Democratic Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Rashida Tlaib) and 15 for the state legislature. But the maps on the table would make them all less than 50% Black, which voters like Joseph say is unacceptable.

“Your plan negates what fairness and balanced voting brings to our democracy and our communities,” he told the commissioners.

The buck stops with citizens in Michigan, but it’s not that way in every state that has an independent commission. New York is the ultimate test for whether Democrats can stand by their professed values. The party there controls every lever of government and can override its citizen redistricting commission under political pressure to pad its House majority.

“Can they be disciplined enough to say we believe in fairness and good governance enough to allow this commission to operate? Or will they usurp that power and then just gerrymander the heck out of the state because they’re afraid that Republicans are going to do that in Texas and in Georgia?” said Doug Spencer, a redistricting law expert at University of Colorado Law School.

If there’s one thing that Democrats shouldn’t worry about in the short term, it’s even more gains for the GOP, Spencer said. That’s because Republicans were able to gerrymander so effectively in 2011, there’s basically no room for them to grow.

“They’re already very near the extreme of the kinds of seats they would be able to get,” he said. “So while [Republicans] control the process completely, they are pretty close to the cap of the kind of seats they could naturally get.”

But that’s less of a comfort for Detroit voters, who don’t risk getting lumped in with GOP districts, but who are nonetheless fighting for fair representation.

“You know what? When we had Republicans part of this process, we at least advanced with two majority [Black] seats in Congress,” Detroit school board member Sherry Gay-Dagnogo told the commissioners. “Under your plan — zero.”

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