The News on Gerrymandering is Grim
The redistricting process is in full swing, and unfortunately, some politicians in both major parties are grossly abusing their power to redraw election district maps. As we highlighted in our primer on gerrymandering, Gerrymandering: Our Democracy At Risk, these trends are growing more extreme. That is partly because the United States Supreme Court has either eliminated or gravely weakened provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that previously helped to prevent egregiously gerrymandered maps in many states.
Now, more than ever, it is critical that the Senate pass The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. These measures would provide Federal standards to protect key voting rights, in Congressional races, from attacks by state officials and lawmakers. We urge you to contact your Senators and ask them to support these two crucial proposals.
Independent Commissions Work…
Certain politicians from both major parties are trying to stack the deck in their favor in several states where their party dominates the legislature. In some instances, they are ignoring, or undermining, advisory commissions that were recently created in efforts to reform the map-drawing process. These developments have reinforced our view that independent commissions are the best way to ensure that maps are drawn fairly.
Truly independent commissions can succeed because, unlike advisory commissions, they have the power to draw and implement electoral maps—not just recommend them. Even in the best models, such as California’s, politicians don’t appoint the commissioners, who are subject to strong conflict-of-interest rules. Furthermore, the commissioners are evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents. This structure forces Democrats and Republicans to compromise on the maps, so they can get the independent commissioners to approve them.
With such safeguards in place, no single party can dictate the maps. Still, we should monitor independent commissions’ deliberations to make sure they produce non-partisan outcomes.
But Advisory Commissions Hit Roadblocks in New York
The problems with two recent reform efforts demonstrate the flaws of advisory commissions and the advantages of independent commissions.
In New York, Democrats hold super-majorities in both the state assembly and the state senate. Voters approved the creation of an advisory commission to draw up maps in this redistricting cycle. However, the commission can only make recommendations, and the legislature retains the ultimate power on redistricting decisions. Democrats have essentially ignored the maps proposed by the commission.
There were two other major flaws in the structure:
· politicians chose the commissioners
· the commissioners were evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans
Predictably, the commission deadlocked, so its members issued two sets of maps: one drawn by Republican appointees and another drawn by Democratic members. Both were dead on arrival.
And Deadlocked in Virginia
We had been more optimistic about the possible outcome for Virginia’s new advisory commission, but that reform effort has also run into trouble. As in New York’s structure, politicians appoint the commissioners, who are split 50/50 between Republicans and Democrats. They were supposed to deliver maps to the state legislature, which can accept or reject them. But the commissioners could not agree on the maps.
However, Virginia has a fallback provision that may lead to a less partisan result than New York’s. Since the commissioners did not issue maps (and the legislature did not accept any), the Virginia State Supreme Court is now empowered to redraw the electoral districts. Judges on that court are not elected, and the Court has a history of acting impartially. The court will hire a special master, a non-partisan professional, to create the maps.
By contrast, the newly-established independent commissions in Colorado and Michigan seem to be off to a good start. Arizona also has a fairly independent commission, although its safeguards are not as robust as California’s.
Both Sides are Gaming the Rules but…
Democratic lawmakers in Maryland and Illinois, as well as those in New York, are engaged in gerrymandering in this cycle. However, most extreme gerrymandering attempts are being carried out in states dominated by Republican legislatures. That is because Republicans control more state houses than Democrats do and because they are trying to preserve their electoral advantage in battleground states where they are facing adverse demographic shifts.
As Nick Corosaniti of the New York Times has observed (GOP Cements Hold On Legislatures in Battleground States),
“In Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Georgia, Republican state lawmakers have either created supermajorities capable of overturning a governor’s veto or whittled down competitive districts so significantly that Republicans’ advantage is virtually impenetrable—leaving voters in narrowly divided states powerless to change the leadership of their legislatures.” (Nov. 25, 2021).
These are all key battleground states. North Carolina and Georgia voters are fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and Texas is getting close, but extreme gerrymanders have enabled Republicans to dominate those legislatures. Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan, two other hotly contested jurisdictions, have also gerrymandered districts heavily, although the new independent commission in Michigan offers hope for a fairer outcome in this cycle.
The Senate Must Pass Voting Rights Acts NOW
After the Democrats failed last summer to pass the sweeping For the People Act, they introduced a scaled-down bill, the Freedom to Vote Act. This bill contained many of the FTPA’s key measures, but it dropped the requirement for states to establish independent commissions to conduct Federal (not state) elections, and it included other concessions.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is also before the Senate.
This bill would:
· restore federal oversight of states practices to ensure that states do not pass laws that discriminate against voters based on race or political background
· require greater transparency in changes to voting laws and practices
· restore voters’ ability to challenge discriminatory voting practices in court
These two pieces of legislation present the best way to protect voting rights from abuse by state officials and lawmakers. If enacted, these proposals would make it easier to sue jurisdictions for extreme gerrymandering and help to prevent racial gerrymandering and purging voters from rolls.
Time to Create an Exception to the Filibuster
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has promised to bring the bills for a vote in the Senate before year-end, and we hope he means it, because time is running short. The 2022 election cycle will soon begin in earnest.
At this point, it is clear that no Republican Senator will support either of these measures. Instead, Republicans will filibuster the two bills, arguing that they infringe upon “states’ rights” …while ignoring the abuses the two proposals would stop.
We urge you to contact your senators and let them know how important passage of these two bills is for ensuring that our elections remain fair. And if they are Democrats, ask them to carve out an exemption to the filibuster for proposals, like these two measures, that would protect fundamental rights such as voting.
Ryan O’Connell ‘73
Jim Harbison ‘73