In Michigan, the state’s civil rights agency said proposed maps of legislative districts “do not measure up to the requirements of the law.” In Pennsylvania, Republican lawmakers complained about an “extreme partisan gerrymander.” And in Virginia, incumbents and potential challengers scrambled to work with proposed district maps.
In theory, new bureaucracies to draw up maps for congressional and legislative districts were supposed to save democracy from politics and block the practice of gerrymandering.
But this month has seen controversies on multiple fronts regarding the independent redistricting commissions involved.
When Virginia voters approved its redistricting commission in 2020, that made a total of 10 states that have a commission with primary responsibility for drawing both congressional and state legislative districts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Five other states have a commission only to draw legislative districts. At least five other states have some form of advisory commission to assist their legislatures.
“The idea is to put it outside the political process,” Mike Watson, research director for Capital Research Center, an investigative think tank based in Washington, told The Daily Signal. “Redistricting commissions take this out of the political process and there is less accountability.”
Watson is the author of a 2019 report by the think tank that concluded the makeup of Congress would be about the same if the United States had followed the model for proportional representation used for the European Parliament.
Supporters of independent commissions to draw the boundaries of election districts contend that leaving the process to legislators allows for protection of incumbents and partisan gerrymandering, in which politicians essentially pick their pool of voters.
But, Watson said, these commissions rarely live up to these promises.
“California’s independent redistricting commission yields more disproportionate representation than most states,” Watson told The Daily Signal. “California Democratic Party-aligned advocacy groups lobbied the commission.”
Similarly, redistricting commissions in Arizona and Michigan have been “besieged by shadowy pressure campaigns,” The New York Times reported.
The Times noted a string of problems in other states that use a redistricting commission even as New York’s Democrat-controlled state Legislature was expected to ignore its advisory committee, just as Utah’s Republican Legislature did.
Ohio’s Republican-controlled Legislature overrode the independent commission with primary responsibility for redistricting.
Legislation before Congress, dubbed the “For the People Act” by proponents and the “Corrupt Politicians Act” by opponents, would require that all 50 states adopt independent redistricting commissions to draw the lines of congressional districts. The same bill, known as HR 1, would eliminate most state voter ID laws and expand the controversial practice of ballot harvesting.
The bill passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.
“Power is best when it’s close to the people. That’s the legislature,” J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, told The Daily Signal. “It’s no accident that the left dreamed up redistricting commissions. It’s another government bureaucracy to decide what is best for people.”
The Biden administration’s Justice Department sued Texas in early December over maps of congressional districts approved by a Republican-majority Legislature. Republicans in some states, including Illinois and Maryland, raised the prospect of litigation over congressional maps drawn by Democrat-controlled legislatures.
“Maryland Republicans need to win elections and then they can draw lines,” Adams said, adding:
When you can’t win elections by convincing voters about your policies, you can’t draw legislative lines. The same is true of South Carolina Democrats. To the victor goes the spoils. It’s part of the give and take of state legislatures. If you give it to a bureaucracy to draw the lines, it’s less transparent.
Adams added that the importance of election district lines is overstated, because Republicans have broken through to win Democrat-drawn districts and Democrats have done the same to win Republican-drawn districts.
Maps for Congress and state legislatures are decided every 10 years after the national census is taken.
The 10 states that now give full authority to redistricting commissions to draw both congressional and state legislative maps are Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington.
In addition, Alaska, Arkansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Pennsylvania empower commissions to draw their state legislative districts.
“The big drawback of these commissions is that if voters don’t like what they are doing, there is nothing they can do about it. With legislators, [if] you’re unhappy with what legislators have done, you can try to get them out of office,” said Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Election Law Reform Initiative at The Heritage Foundation, parent organization of The Daily Signal.
“On most of the independent commissions, the commission members are made up of people appointed by people picked by the political parties and others,” von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Election Commission, told The Daily Signal, adding:
They often try to claim they are independent, but there are not very many people in the political world who don’t favor one political party or the other. The other problem with these independent commissions is they are often captured by their staff.
Some years ago when the California independent commission was set up, I actually received a call from someone out in California to ask me if I knew anything about the names of various individuals who had applied to be on the staff of this commission.
All of them were individuals who I knew or knew of, [they] were illogically on the left side or far left side of the political world when it came to voting matters. The staff was clearly going to be very prejudicial, and they are the ones drawing up the maps and providing advice to the commission members.
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