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Success of Independent Redistricting Boards a Work in Progress

The Supreme Court ruled last month that independent redistricting commissions are constitutional, but are they effective
Image: Midterms Elections Held Across The U.S.
MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 4: A voter enters the voting booth at Bishop Leo E. O'Neil Youth Center November 4, 2014 in Manchester, New Hampshire. New Hampshire features a tight race between incumbent U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and former Massachusetts U.S. Senator Scott Brown. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)Darren McCollester / Getty Images

The Supreme Court ruled last month that independent redistricting commissions are constitutional, preserving the model in a handful of states where independent bodies redraw state legislative and congressional districts.

But are they effective – compared with the legislatures responsible for drawing these districts in the other states?

The answer depends how you define success.

“That’s one of the challenges of evaluating the redistricting commissions – that not everyone agrees on what the metric of success should be,” said Michael Li, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

One metric of success is competition.

According to a New York Times analysis, the 2001 and 2011 maps drawn by independent commission in Arizona produced some of the most competitive races in the country. In 2014, two Arizona congressional districts were among 29 nationwide where the race was decided by less than 5 percent of the vote.

Rodolfo Espino, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, said that more competitive districts – in theory – leads to less political polarization.

“If you’re from a competitive district, you’re incentive is, ‘I have to appeal to voters’ issues and concerns across the aisle,’ and that’s going to translate into their behavior when they go to the Hill,” he said.

But Espino acknowledged that not every district can be drawn that way.

“There’s going to be a certain level of geographic sorting that’s going to limit their ability to create all districts as competitive,” he said. “You’re always going to have some districts that are going to be very solid Democrat, some districts that are always going to be solid Republican, and that’s just the way our country is.”

According to Stan Forbes, chair of California’s independent redistricting commission, fairness – not competition – should be the best measure of success of independent redistricting commissions.

In California, he said, the commission is charged with drawing fair districts, not competitive ones, and is prevented from using voter registration data when drawing new maps.

Even so, he said California is now home to 10 competitive districts, where several seats changed hands during the last election cycle.

“Just by drawing fair lines and ignoring party registration and where incumbents were, the natural result of that was to have more competitive districts,” Forbes said. “I think when you start trying to create competitive districts, then you have to get political.”

Colleen Coyle Mathis, chair of Arizona’s redistricting commission, said voter turnout should be another measure of success or failure.

“When you’ve got a safe district where it’s clearly lopsided in favor of one party or another, there’s just no chance, and I think people get discouraged,” she said.

In Arizona, midterm turnout climbed steadily after the commission first assumed mapmaking responsibilities, but then began dropping off again through the 2010 and 2014 cycles.

Of course, there’s also the backlash to independent redistricting commissions.

Republican Andy Biggs, president of the Arizona State Senate, says the legislature “absolutely” could have drawn better maps.

Biggs and other legislators see Arizona’s process as undemocratic, and have criticized the commission’s lack of transparency. He says that’s particularly problematic since the commission’s independent chair holds a great deal of unchecked power.

In fact, it was in Arizona where legislators unsuccessfully challenged the commission’s constitutionality in court and the state’s governor attempted to remove the commission’s chair from her post.

“Let’s just be honest, that commission is as political as anything you’re ever going to see,” Biggs said. “And now, well guess what you get, you get absolutely no accountability for a very political process.”

Forbes, of the California commission, disagrees.

“An election does not make the representative accountable,” he said. “If they draw lines where they can’t lose, what’s the accountability you have in an election?”

Mathis called the Arizona commission “one of the most transparent entities in Arizona history,” and noted all meetings were live-streamed and transcribed for the public. The maps, she said, also face scrutiny from the courts and the Justice Department.

Still, Tom Storey, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said there are still benefits to keeping redistricting in the hands of legislatures.

“This is a much more diverse group of people who are intimately acquainted with the specifics of their state,” he said. “Every square inch of every state has somebody in that legislature who cares about it.”

And the redistricting fights aren’t going away.

Though the Supreme Court has upheld independent redistricting models back in June, it has agreed to hear a case next session considering whether the Arizona commission drew too many Republicans into a small number of districts.