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'People Want Their Power Back': Voters Approve Redistricting Reforms

In a year with more redistricting measures than usual, voters in several states reduced politicians' role in the process of drawing voting districts.

Election 2018 Redistricting Money
Supporters of Missouri's redistricting ballot measure hold signs behind former state Sen. Bob Johnson.
(AP/David A. Lieb)
For results of the most important ballot measures, click here.

Every 10 years, political battle lines deepen as one party accuses another of manipulating district boundaries to win more seats. The fight over 2010 restricting is still ongoing.

In June, a federal court ordered Virginia to redraw legislative districts it deemed to be gerrymandered along racial lines. In two other cases, one that accused Republicans of partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin and another accusing Democrats in Maryland, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to offer a definitive opinion on the issue.

With the court unwilling to take a stand on partisan gerrymandering, advocates of redistricting reform took the issue directly to voters in four states. On Tuesday, residents in Colorado, Missouri, Michigan and Utah voted on whether to limit partisanship and promote transparency in redistricting.

In a significant victory for advocates of reform, voters approved the measures in Michigan, Colorado and Missouri. Utah's Proposition 4 is still awaiting results but is leading in the votes counted so far.

“It’s a big deal,” said Wendy Underhill, director of the National Conference of State Legislatures' elections and redistricting team. “From 2010 to 2017, there were five measures on statewide ballots that address similar things. Now, there are five in a single year.” (The fifth this year being in Ohio, where voters approved a measure on primary ballots in May to make the drawing of congressional districts more independent and less partisan.)

Michigan and Colorado will join California and Arizona in adopting the country's most independent redistricting processes, says Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice. The new commissions will transfer the power to approve election maps from lawmakers to a group of carefully vetted citizens.

Each of Tuesday's proposals varies in scope. In Missouri, Amendment 1 will task a nonpartisan demographer with drawing district maps. The maps will then need to be approved or changed by a 70 percent vote from the existing commission.

If approved, Utah’s Proposition 4 would establish a seven-person commission of members chosen by the governor and state legislative leaders. As in the other states, an applicant would be disqualified for lobbying or being a candidate for political office within the four years before appointment to the commission.

Redistricting reform advocates argue these measures will reduce lawmakers’ control and give citizens more power in the process. But some critics contend that they will give more power to Democrats over Republicans.

Katie Fahey and her team founded Voters Not Politicians to develop and campaign for the Michigan proposal. Michigan’s amendment will create a redistricting commission composed of four Democrats, four Republicans and five members of third parties -- who would be selected from a pool weighted to reflect Michigan’s geographic and demographic makeup. Applicants for this commission would also be restricted by current and past political work.

In Colorado, Amendments Y and Z deal with congressional and legislative redistricting respectively. The changes will create a 12-member commission consisting of four members of the state’s largest political party, four members from the second largest party and four unaffiliated members. Members would be selected through a combination of methods, including randomized drawings and appointments by former judges. Being a lobbyist or elected official in the state within the last three years will disqualify someone from serving on the commission.

The inclusion of unaffiliated members is especially important in Colorado because the state has about 1.2 million active independent voters, said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesperson for Fair Maps Colorado, a bipartisan group that backed Amendment Z. That's roughly one-third of the state's total active voters.

“This was done less as a response to perceived gerrymandering,” Hubbard said. “This was really done with an eye to the future and an understanding that the previous processes we’ve had were highly partisan. … There’s got to be a better way.”

One key component for the Colorado, Michigan and Utah measures is the inclusion of public participation. Redistricting is an infamously secretive process, said Li. It’s not always clear who is actually drawing the maps. Redistricting meetings also tend to be held behind closed doors, where newer politicians “who don’t understand what they’re doing” defer to party leaders for guidance, said Li. To push back on that tradition, all three states would require the commissions to consider feedback from residents on proposed district maps.

Not everyone is convinced the independent commissions will be fair.

The conservative Michigan Freedom Fund campaigned against Michigan’s ballot measure. The executive director of the group, Tony Daunt, said it is problematic because regular citizens, unlike politicians, “are accountable to no one.” 

In Colorado, Douglas Bruce, a former Republican state legislator, drove the opposition.

“Y and Z schemers leave selection of 'neutral' commissioners to retired state judges,” Bruce wrote in an op-ed for The Coloradoan. “Instead of random drawings of applicants, judges will pick whom they like. Democrat governors have named judges 36 of the last 44 years. The pool of judges for this task is highly liberal and totally unaccountable.”

Tuesday's victories for redistricting reform could bring a "shocking wave of change," said NCSL's Underhill.

No matter your political affiliation, independent redistricting is about having a voice, said Fahey.

“I think one message that resonated in the 2016 election is that the establishment is not working,” said Fahey. “I think if anything, people want their power back. I think a lot of us are tired of politicians making promises they can’t follow through on.”

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