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Independent Commissions Can Put an End to Gerrymandering

By Jane C. Sherburne
Nathan Owen Rosenberg
, and Robert J. Kueppers

This article originally appeared in Real Clear Policy on June 27, 2018.

The vast majority of Americans want to remove partisan bias from redistricting, even if it means that their preferred party will win fewer seats. With the Supreme Court ducking the issue for now and the two political parties having little incentive to press for change, it is incumbent on civic and business leaders to marshal the call for fundamental reform.

The redistricting process has become a partisan battleground in which representing voters is often sacrificed to the political interests of legislators. In most states, legislators have the power to manipulate district lines to give an unfair advantage to members of their own party. This practice often guarantees victory for incumbents and diminishes the power of voters to change their leaders. While party politics have always been a feature of redistricting, partisan gerrymandering has gotten out of hand, resulting in grotesquely unrepresentative congressional maps.

The Supreme Court passed up an opportunity to address the problem in its remand of Gill v. Whitford. In that case, the lower court ruled that highly partisan and unrepresentative legislative maps in Wisconsin violate the principle of “one person, one vote” and threaten the First Amendment liberties of voters by diminishing their power to elect their preferred candidate. Instead of ruling on the constitutionality of the maps, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court in order to give the challengers a chance to prove that their individual votes had been burdened by the state’s gerrymandering.

In other words, the gerrymandering battle will go on, in the courts and elsewhere.

Both parties already have launched multi-million dollar campaigns to influence state and local elections in order to gain control of state legislatures and the redistricting that will occur after the 2020 election. And both will continue to act as an undemocratic duopoly, seeking to win elections by manipulating district lines and effectively choosing their own voters. This diminishes the power of voters, enabling legislators to ignore their concerns.

Even as it kicked the can down the road, the Supreme Court reminded us of the need for fundamental redistricting reform. We believe the power to draw district maps must be taken out of the hands of legislators and placed in the hands of nonpartisan, independent commissions that decide district lines based on unbiased criteria.

Six states have already established such commissions to draw district maps. In November, voters in Colorado and Utah will decide ballot initiatives that would create independent commissions for redistricting in those states. Michigan also has redistricting reform on the ballot, although the initiative is currently being challenged in court.

Nonpartisan, independent commissions produce fairer, more competitive, and less polarized districts. They eliminate the inherent conflicts of interest that exist when legislators are responsible for approving their own districts. And they strengthen the voice of voters, improving the accountability and responsiveness of government to citizens’ views. It is therefore no surprise that many Western democracies, including Canada and Great Britain, use this approach to determine legislative districts.

Nonpartisan, independent commissions can establish a foundation for fairer, more equitable, and more competitive elections. Absent this reform — and assuming the Supreme Court does not rule on this issue in the near future — the next round of redistricting after the 2020 election will result in more of the same. Many voters will be condemned to another decade of unrepresentative and uncompetitive elections that are not well suited to our democratic principles. It is time to adopt a solution that we know works and establish independent districting commissions in every state.