Next Steps: Clean Missouri

Originally posted in The Missouri Times on July 2, 2019.

As elected officials vacate Jefferson City and return to their families and jobs, The Missouri Times is bringing you updates on big initiatives that didn’t quite make it through before May 17. The “Next Steps” series will showcase progress made on certain legislative issues and offer a look ahead to what could come.

Missouri’s voter-approved redistricting process was specifically mentioned by the U.S. Supreme Court in both the majority and dissenting opinions. The different perspectives from the nation’s highest court on how the Show-Me State is addressing gerrymandering exemplifies the partisan debate taking place.

Last week, in a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court determined federal judges have no authority to correct partisan gerrymandering, effectively kicking the issue to the states.

“Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering. Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void. The States, for example, are actively addressing the issue on a number of fronts,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.

Pointing to Missouri, the majority opinion noted, “Voters there overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new position — state demographer — to draw state legislative district lines.”

But the dissenting opinion pointed out lawmakers have already made an attempt, albeit a failed one, at walking back changes initiated by citizen petition.

“But before the demographer had drawn a single line, Members of the state legislature had introduced a bill to start undoing the change,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

The redistricting process approved by voters in November 2018 requires a new “nonpartisan state demographer” to draw legislative maps for the state’s General Assembly. Under the so-called Clean Missouri Amendment, the maps will then be submitted to the existing bipartisan commissions for approval.

The process directs the demographer to consider “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness” when drawing districts.

So what’s next?

When lawmakers convened in Jefferson City for session, they made multiple attempts to walk back or alter the changes passed as part of an overachieving ethics reform. Ultimately, none of the proposed bills made it across the finish line.

The bill that made it the furthest, HJR 48 championed by Rep. Dean Plocher, would have put the redistricting back in the hands of a bipartisan commission and altered the priorities to be considered when drawing the maps. The proposal, which would have needed voter approval, passed the House but failed to get out of a Senate committee.

It is likely the measures will be back before the General Assembly in 2020.

“I think it is imperative that our districts be compact and contiguous, and we continue to say ‘communities matter’ rather than just a competitive spirit. I think competitiveness is great but you have to keep communities together first,” Plocher told The Missouri Times.

Those in support of Clean Missouri pushed back against proposed changes and promised to continue to do so in the future.

“The massive bipartisan coalition that fought for two years to pass redistricting and ethics reforms isn’t going to give up either,” Sean Soendker Nicholson, who helped pass Clean Missouri last year, told The Missouri Times.

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court does not have an immediate impact on the ongoing redistricting debate in Missouri. Unless Congress decides to take action, how legislative maps are drawn will remain in the purview of the state without federal interference.

“It doesn’t have any impact on [Missouri’s] state legislative redistricting process at all,” said Nicholson.

But, according to Eddie Greim, a Kansas City attorney who filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case, it could have an impact down the road. He noted courts have ruled individual rights related to voting does not apply to partisan gerrymandering, though Clean Missouri gives those “group rights” to political parties.

“I think one interesting question after the opinion is, to what extent does this imposition of a group right by the Missouri Constitution violate individual rights to vote,” Greim told The Missouri Times. “I think it is less likely, although I can’t say for sure, a challenge to Clean Missouri itself would be cognizable just because of this ruling. I think it would have to be after districts are drawn.”


Here’s how to fix partisan gerrymandering, now that the Supreme Court kicked it back to the states.

Originally posted in the Washington Post on July 2, 2019.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court released its much-anticipated decision in Rucho v. Common Cause, saying that if a legislature draws districts that disproportionately favor one party — usually called “partisan gerrymandering” — it’s a “political question” that the federal courts can’t fix.

Those who oppose partisan gerrymandering must therefore fight it in the states, where reformers have made significant gains. Last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a Republican-drawn state map and replaced it with one drawn by an independent expert, leading Democrats to gain three House seats in 2018. Voters in five states approved ballot initiatives to adopt independent redistricting. Several other states are considering similar measures.

But it is not clear whether independent districting will lead to politically neutral maps, in part because so little research has been done. To understand the consequences of redistricting reform, we have spent the last several years compiling a comprehensive data set on how all 50 states handled redistricting of the 99 state legislative chambers after the 2010 Census. Here’s what we found.

Reformers have tried for large and smaller changes in redistricting, aimed at reducing partisan bias

In the 1960s, the Supreme Court first ruled that states must revise their legislative maps after every census to ensure they met the “one person, one vote” standard. Since then, reformers at the state level have advanced many types of measures aimed at reducing partisan influence in redistricting.

Some significantly change the process, as when California voters in 2010 installed an independent and nonpartisan redistricting commission to draw new maps.

Others involve more modest changes, such as rules that require maps to meet what has been called “fair districting” criteria. In the 1970s, for example, several states added new “district compactness” requirements to their constitutions that required lawmakers to avoid drawing irregularly shaped districts. More recent reforms have included rules that prohibit the splitting of political or “community” boundaries across district lines.

Do redistricting rules prevent maps that are biased toward one party?

Using data published by Justin Levitt, we considered the effects of three of the most common types of districting criteria: district compactness requirements; rules that require districting authorities to preserve “communities of interest”; and rules requiring that districts respect political boundaries such as counties or municipalities.

None of these rules made a difference in the level of partisan bias we found in the districts drawn before and after they were in place. Of course, although such rules don’t prevent maps that tilt toward one party or another, they may serve other purposes — such as preserving the bond between an elected official and a community of citizens.

Does an independent redistricting commission prevent partisan bias in district maps?

To understand this, we grouped each of the 99 state legislative plans redrawn after 2011 into four categories, based on who drew the maps: Republicans, Democrats or politicians from both parties (working in a legislature or political committee); or nonpartisan outsiders, including those working in an independent commission like California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission, or a court-ordered remedial map.

To measure bias, we used the standard of symmetry — that is, whether a map treats parties similarly under similar circumstances. For example, if Party A were to receive 65 percent of the seats with 55 percent of the vote in one election, a symmetrical map would also award Party B the same share of seats if they were to receive 55 percent of the vote in a different election. As we explain in great detail in our previous work, this method allows us to estimate how biased a plan is in favor of one party over another.

When we compared the maps used before 2011 with the maps used after 2011, we found starkly different outcomes depending upon which party controlled redistricting. Not surprisingly, the maps drawn by a single party — either Democrats or Republicans — became less symmetrical after redistricting. Plans drawn by Republicans generally became more favorable to the Republican Party, while the plans drawn by Democrats increasingly favored Democratic politicians. This didn’t happen to the same degree. Republicans drew more bias into their plans, in part because Democratic voters tend to live disproportionately in cities, which makes it easier for Republicans to draw efficient gerrymanders.

By contrast, in the maps drawn by bipartisan or nonpartisan actors, the level of partisan bias didn’t change much after 2011 — with one key difference. The nonpartisan-drawn maps tended to be more symmetrical on average after redistricting. In other words, they tended to treat both parties similarly. This suggests that nonpartisan bodies have successfully neutralized partisan bias, as intended.

Independent districting works, but politicians will resist it

Although our analysis is only preliminary, our findings suggest that independent redistricting is likely to succeed in neutralizing partisan influence. But in many of the states where reformers have won key victories, lawmakers have resisted implementing those reforms.

For example, last year, Missouri voters approved a ballot measure that tasks a nonpartisan state demographer with redistricting — but Republican legislators are suing to block it from going into effect. Similarly, last fall Michigan’s voters passed a constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting commission — but in a lame-duck session, lawmakers passed regulations that, critics said, would constrain the commission’s power.

The battle to end partisan influence in districting has moved to the states — and it’s far from over.


KOLR10: What SCOTUS’ decision on gerrymandering means for Missouri

Originally posted in Ozarks First on June 30, 2019.

The supreme court decided last week federal courts cannot rule on gerrymandering cases.

To divide or arrange (an area) into political units to give special advantages to one group

“They did not rule, necessarily, that partisan gerrymandering was ‘OK’ or was constitutional. They simply said it is the kind decision that we feel is best for congress or the state legislatures to make,” said Dr. Daniel Ponder, a political Science Professor at Drury University.

What does this ruling mean for Missouri?

“It’s not clear. What this does mean, just like every other state, it leaves everything in place,” said Ponder. “So, it technically does not touch Clean Missouri, that can still go forward, but what it means is that both sides are really going to dig in now.”

Amendment One, or Clean Missouri, was approved by voters in November. It included a provision to have a nonpartisan state demographer to draw district lines.

During the last legislative session, Republican lawmakers attempted to roll back parts of the amendment, saying it would make Amendment One better. Others say they were attempting to overturn the will of the voters.

“I think there’s a lot of misnomers here,” Rep. Dean Plocher (R-St. Louis) said on the Missouri House of Representatives floor during the 2019 General Assembly. “We’re not overturning the will of the voters at all. In fact, I’m improving, I believe, on Amendment One through this process.”

“Because it didn’t rule whether they are good or bad, so it leaves standing Missouri’s amendment one, which was passed in November,” said Ann Elwell with the League of Women Voters of Southwest Missouri. “So, we still have fair maps in Missouri, which is a good thing.”

The bill to roll back parts of the amendment failed in the Missouri Senate.

Ponder says the Supreme Court made the decision it made because Gerrymandering is considered a “political issue,” which, the court does not weigh in on.

“A political issue is what the court feels is better decided by the elected branches,” said Ponder. “So, the congress, the president, state legislatures, etc.,” said Ponder.

Ponder says Republicans are likely to push for roll backs on Clean Missouri again in the next legislative session.


With No Supreme Court End to Gerrymandering, Will States Make It More Extreme?

Originally posted in The New York Times on June 28, 2019.

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — For most of this decade, North Carolina Democrats have complained that the Republican-led legislature has aggressively altered the state’s voting rules and redrawn electoral maps to secure an overwhelming partisan advantage.

On Thursday, the United States Supreme Court said it couldn’t do anything about it.

The decision by the justices not to intervene in even the most blatant partisan gerrymanders was a letdown to many liberals in this evenly divided purple state, where substantive policy battles often feel overshadowed by knife-fighting over the rules that govern democracy itself.

“Everybody realizes it’s a problem, and what it’s doing to our Congress and state legislatures,” Darren Jackson, the Democratic leader in the North Carolina House, said of partisan gerrymandering.

Thursday’s 5-4 ruling means that North Carolina’s current Republican-drawn map delineating its 13 Congressional districts — a map that critics have said is among the country’s most egregious examples of hyper-partisanship — will stand. The decision could also embolden lawmakers around the country to continue to push the envelope and craft seats for their respective parties with the aid of increasingly sophisticated computer mapping tools.

The high court’s decision does not preclude state lawmakers, or Congress, from taking action to reduce partisan gerrymandering. Civil rights lawyers on Thursday vowed to bring litigation in state courts to curb the practice under state constitutions, and a state-level lawsuit in North Carolina, expected to be heard later this summer, challenges Republican-drawn state legislative districts.

Lawmakers in North Carolina and other states may now also feel more pressure to follow the lead of states like Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah, which have set up independent redistricting commissions led by citizens in an effort to take map-drawing powers out of the hands of legislators altogether.

Those efforts are attempting to solve a question that has long bedeviled the courts: How to take the politics out of an inherently political process?

Former Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina, a Republican, said Thursday that he liked the idea of creating a nonpartisan map-drawing board. But he also wondered how nonpartisan such a body could ever truly be. “Who selects the nonpartisan committee?” he said. “Another nonpartisan committee? And then who selects them?”

Over the years, North Carolina has been consumed with numerous changes to political boundaries, legal challenges and associated vitriol. Democrats have accused Republicans of racism and drawing lines to minimize minority votes. And Republicans have accused Democrats — who effectively ran the state for decades — of hypocrisy, noting that they, too, actively engaged in gerrymandering once upon a time.

“Everyone’s against gerrymandering when they’re not the ones in power,” Mr. McCrory said.

The state’s current governor, Roy Cooper, said in a statement that the “battle is far from over,” noting that the fight against extreme partisan gerrymandering now moves to the courts and voters.

The state’s emergence in recent years as one of the most active battlegrounds in America’s voting wars stems to 2010, when Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in a century, giving them the power to redraw all manner of political maps.

There was a feeling then among Republicans that old wrongs needed to be righted, and that the state needed a firm rightward shove to bring it in line with the party’s wave that had overtaken much of the South. But they were met with fierce resistance from a liberal contingent that is one of the best organized in the region.

“They have been pursuing a very, very aggressive policy agenda that in some ways has kind of been like a lab experiment for what Trump has been pursuing on the national level,” said Rob Schofield, director of NC Policy Watch, a liberal group. “The gerrymandering has provided an environment where that lab experiment can continue to thrive, even though it is a divided purple state.”

Maps were drawn, rules were changed and lawsuits were filed, including challenges to a Republican-backed voter identification law and the constitutionality of Republican-drawn boundaries for federal, state and even local districts.

The law establishing a voter ID requirement and other restrictions on voting was struck down by a federal appeals court in 2016 on grounds that it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.”

The federal courts then forced North Carolina Republicans to redraw portions of its Congressional map on grounds that parts of it constituted a racial gerrymander. In 2016, Republicans returned with a map that they explicitly claimed was created to disadvantage Democrats, rather than black people.

At one meeting, the Republican chairman of the state House Elections Committee, Representative David R. Lewis, said the maps would be drawn “to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

In last year’s midterm elections, Democrats won 48.3 percent of the total vote in House races, and Republican candidates won 50.4 percent. But Democrats won only three of the 13 Congressional seats.

In a statement Thursday, Mr. Lewis praised the ruling for keeping the courts out of the redistricting process.

“Despite the millions of dollars spent by political activist organizations, the court issued a decision in our favor, determining that redistricting is the role of state legislatures, not the judicial branch,” he said.

For Asheville, a city that in recent decades has undergone a major liberal makeover, the sting of gerrymandering dates to 2011. Before that year’s Republican redistricting, much of its metro area had been lumped in the 11th District, which included city neighborhoods and more conservative rural areas to the west. The House seat had flopped from blue to red many times, and beginning in 2007, the district had been represented by Heath Shuler, a former N.F.L. quarterback who was a classic split-the-difference moderate Democrat.

But the redrawn map that year took a major liberal dollop of the 11th District and shoved it into the neighboring Republican-dominated 10th District. Mr. Shuler, sensing an uphill battle in his reconfigured district, decided in 2012 not to run again. And with liberals expertly divided between two districts, all of greater Asheville — a Southern city of cannabis-infused ice cream and multiday yoga festivals — found itself represented by two emphatic conservative Republicans and allies of President Trump: Mark Meadows in the 11th district and Patrick McHenry in the 10th.

Now progressive Asheville believes gerrymandering has locked its residents out of the Washington conversation.

“They will give lip service to listening to you, but you really know it’s a futile effort,” said Frank Goldsmith, a resident of Buncombe County, which includes Asheville, and member of the activist group Carolina Jews for Justice, referring to the Republican Congressmen.

Mayor Esther Manheimer, who, like the rest of the nonpartisan City Council, is a reliable liberal, said that while the local congressmen are easy to work with on nonpartisan items like infrastructure funding, there is a “disconnect” on other issues that Asheville residents are passionate about, like climate change and health care reform.

“I think that what happens is the electorate becomes disengaged,” she said. “They feel like the whole structure of the system is broken and doesn’t work for them, and they don’t trust in it.”

In 2017, the local League of Women Voters organized a 5 K run-walk along parts of the line between the 10th and 11th districts in an effort to underscore what the group saw as its ludicrous zigzags. Another section was found to bisect two dorms at the University of North Carolina Asheville, putting students living in the same hall in differing districts.

The redrawing did not end with Congressional districts: The Republican legislature has also changed or created the district lines for state House members, county commissioners and city council members. The legislature ordered a change to the Asheville City Council last year, converting an at-large system to one with five geographic districts, even though voters had rejected the idea three-to-one in an earlier referendum.

Jerry Green, chairman of the Buncombe County Republican Party, agreed with the state’s former governor, Mr. McCrory, that there was no mechanism that could truly cleanse the map-drawing process of politics. And he suggested that the future may only hold even more turmoil.

“One’s going to sue the other,” he said, “and we’re always going to have to deal with this.”


Redistricting reforms already taking root in many states

Originally posted in The Associated Press on June 27, 2019.

While ruling that it had no authority to resolve partisan gerrymandering claims, the U.S. Supreme Court noted Thursday that states could act on their own to try to limit the role of politics in drawing congressional and state legislative districts.

Several states already have done so, including some where voters adopted constitutional amendments last year.

In most places, state lawmakers and governors are responsible for drawing and approving political district maps following each U.S. census. But a growing number of states have shifted the task to independent or bipartisan commissions or have changed their redistricting criteria to reduce the likelihood of partisan gerrymandering.

Here are some of the states using commissions or other nontraditional methods for the next round of redistricting, which will take place after the 2020 census.

ALASKA: A five-member commission draws districts for the state House and Senate under a 1998 amendment to the state constitution. Two members are appointed by the governor and one each by the presiding officers of the House and Senate and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Districts must be compact, contiguous and contain “a relatively integrated socio-economic area.” Alaska has only one congressional district.

ARIZONA: Congressional and state legislative districts are drawn by a five-member commission established under a ballot measure approved by voters in 2000. Twenty-five potential redistricting commissioners are nominated by the same state panel that handles appeals court nominees. The Legislature’s two Republican leaders choose two commissioners from 10 Republican candidates, and the two Democratic leaders chose two from their party’s 10 nominees. Those four commissioners then select the fifth member, who must be an independent and serves as panel chairman. The constitution says “competitive districts” should be drawn as long as that doesn’t detract from the goals of having compact, contiguous districts that respect communities of interest.

Democrats have accused Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, of influencing the commission’s composition by stacking the appellate court panel that narrows the field of potential candidates. The panel has eight Republicans and five independents, but no Democrats.

CALIFORNIA: Voters approved a pair of ballot measures, in 2008 and 2010, creating a 14-member commission to draw congressional and state legislative districts. A state auditor’s panel takes applications and selects 60 potential redistricting commissioners — 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans and 20 others. The state Assembly and Senate majority and minority leaders each can eliminate two nominees from each political category. Eight redistricting commissioners — three Democrats, three Republicans and two unaffiliated members — are randomly selected from the remaining pool of candidates. Those commissioners then select an additional two Democrats, two Republicans and two unaffiliated members. Approving a map requires nine votes, including three from each political category of members. The constitution says the districts should be compact and keep cities, counties and communities of interest together to the extent possible.

COLORADO: Congressional and state legislative districts will be drawn by a 12-member commission, under a pair of constitutional amendments approved by voters last November. The commission will consist of four Republicans, four Democrats and four independents selected from a pool of applicants. Half will be chosen randomly and the rest by a judicial panel. Nonpartisan legislative staff will draft proposed maps for the commission’s approval; maps will require at least eight votes, including two from independents. The state Supreme Court will then review the maps to determine whether legal criteria were followed. The districts must be compact, preserve communities of interest and “maximize the number of politically competitive districts.”

HAWAII: Congressional and state legislative districts are drawn by a nine-member commission. The majority and minority party leaders in the House and Senate each appoint two commissioners. Those eight then pick a ninth commissioner. If they can’t agree, the ninth member is appointed by the state Supreme Court. Districts cannot be drawn to “unduly favor a person or political faction.”

IDAHO: A six-member commission is responsible for drawing both congressional and state legislative districts. Two-thirds of the commissioners must vote to approve a map. The majority and minority party leaders in each legislative chamber each select one person to serve on the commission; the state chairmen of the Republican and Democratic parties also each select a commissioner. Mapmakers should avoid “oddly shaped” districts and preserve “traditional neighborhoods and local communities of interest.”

IOWA: The nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency draws maps for congressional and state legislative districts, which are submitted to the Legislature for approval. Districts must consist of “convenient contiguous territory” and be reasonably compact. Districts cannot be drawn to favor a political party, incumbent or other person or group.

MICHIGAN: Under a constitutional amendment approved by voters last November, congressional and state legislative districts will be drawn by a 13-member citizens’ commission. It will consist of four Democrats, four Republicans and five independents randomly selected by the secretary of state from among applicants. Approval of districts will require a majority vote with support of at least two Democrats, two Republicans and two independents. If that fails, each commissioner would submit a plan and rank their options by preference, with the highest-ranked plan prevailing. In case of a tie, the secretary of state would randomly select the final plan. Districts must be compact, contiguous, limit splitting of counties and cities, “reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest,” not favor or disfavor incumbents, and not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party.

MISSOURI: A constitutional amendment approved by voters last November will require a new nonpartisan state demographer to draft maps for state House and Senate districts. The demographer is to design districts to achieve “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness” as determined by statistical measurements using the results of previous elections. Districts also shall be contiguous and limit splits among counties and cities. Compact districts are preferred but rank last among the criteria. The maps will be submitted to a pair of existing bipartisan commissions for approval. The governor will appoint a 10-member commission for the Senate districts, choosing five Republicans and five Democrats from among nominees submitted by the state parties. For the House, the governor will appoint an equal bipartisan commission of 16 members from nominees submitted by Republican and Democratic congressional district committees. Congressional districts still will be drawn by the state Legislature.

MONTANA: A five-member commission draws state legislative districts and would also draw congressional districts if Montana’s population grows enough to have more than one. The majority and minority leaders of each legislative chamber appoint one member each. Those four then select a fifth member, who serves as chairman. If they can’t agree on the final member, the state Supreme Court makes the appointment. Districts must be compact and contiguous.

NEW HAMPSHIRE:- Lawmakers in June passed a bill to create a 15-member independent redistricting commission. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has not taken a public position on the bill yet. The bill calls for House and Senate leaders of both parties to nominate 10 people each from the applicant pool, and then pick five from the other party’s list. Those 10 would then together select the remaining five members. The commission would be required to hold public meetings in each of the state’s counties, and the maps it develops would be approved by the Legislature.

NEW JERSEY: Congressional districts are drawn by a 13-member commission, which requires a majority vote to approve a map. The majority and minority leaders of each legislative chamber and the chairmen of the state’s two major parties each appoint two members. Those 12 select one more member. A separate 10-member commission draws state legislative districts, with the chairmen of the two major political parties each appointing five members. If they can’t agree on a plan, the Supreme Court appoints an 11th member. State legislative districts must be contiguous and as compact as possible.

NEW YORK: Under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2014, a 10-member commission will draft districts for both Congress and the state Legislature. The majority and minority leaders of each chamber each appoint two members to the commission. Those eight members then select the other two commissioners. Their maps are submitted to the Legislature for approval. Districts shall be compact and contiguous and shall not be drawn to discourage competition or to favor incumbents, particular candidates or political parties.

OHIO: A pair of voter-approved amendments will require minority-party support to enact new congressional and state legislative districts that last a full decade. Under a plan approved in 2015, state legislative districts will be drawn by a seven-member commission consisting of the governor, auditor, secretary of state and one person appointed by each of the majority and minority party leaders in the House and Senate. To last 10 years, the maps need support from at least two members of each party; otherwise, they are valid for just four years. For congressional districts, voters approved a measure last May that requires the Legislature to pass a redistricting plan by a three-fifths majority with the support of at least half the members of the majority and minority parties. If that fails, districts are to be drawn by the seven-member commission and approval requires support from at least two members of each party. If that fails, the Legislature may pass a plan by a three-fifths vote with the support of at least one-third of the majority and minority party members. If that fails, the Legislature may pass a plan by a majority, but it would remain in effect for only four years.

PENNSYLVANIA: State legislative districts are drawn by a five-member commission under a procedure dating back several decades. The majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate each appoint one member, and those four then select a fifth person to serve as chairman. If they cannot agree on a chairman, the Supreme Court appoints one. Districts must be compact and contiguous and respect municipal boundaries. Congressional districts are drawn by the Legislature and sent to the governor for approval.

UTAH: Congressional and state legislative districts will be drawn by a seven-member commission, under a constitutional amendment approved by voters last November. The commission will be composed of one gubernatorial appointee, two appointees by Republican legislative leaders, two appointees by Democratic legislative leaders and two political independents appointed by majority and minority party legislative leaders. The commission’s recommended maps will be submitted to the Legislature for final approval. Districts shall be compact and contiguous, preserve communities of interest and not favor or disfavor incumbents. Partisan voting records may not be considered.

VERMONT: A commission submits plans for state House and Senate districts to the state Legislature, which can approve or change them. The governor appoints one commissioner from each of the state’s political parties that have had at least three state lawmakers for six of the past 10 years. The chairs of those parties appoint one member each. The chief justice appoints the committee chair. Districts should be compact and contiguous and recognize “patterns of geography, social interaction, trade, political ties and common interests.”

WASHINGTON: Congressional and state legislative districts are drawn by a five-member commission under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1983. The majority and minority party leaders in both legislative chambers each appoint one commissioner, who cannot be an officeholder or lobbyist. Those four members then select a fifth, non-voting member who serves as chairman. Lawmakers can amend the commission’s maps with a two-thirds vote of each chamber, but their changes can shift no more than 2 percent of the population among districts. Districts should be comprised of “convenient, contiguous and compact territory” and not drawn to purposely “favor or discriminate against any political party or group.”


Supreme Court punts on partisan gerrymandering, sets up fight in the states

Originally posted in The Center for Public Integrity on June 27, 2019.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that the federal judiciary has no role to play in extreme partisan gerrymandering cases yields uncertainty as to what happens next, but likely throws the issue into a mix of state venues.

In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the court’s conservative majority said, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion, that federal judges “have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties.” The ruling came in two consolidated cases, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek.

The decision effectively wipes out federal courts as an avenue in which proponents of redistricting reform can be heard. The case involved challenges from plaintiffs in North Carolina who said maps had been drawn to favor Republicans in their state and from plaintiffs in Maryland who said their maps were altered unfairly for Democrats.

“The immediate consequence is there is no set of facts that is so extreme that gerrymandering or partisan gerrymandering would be unconstitutional under Roberts’ majority opinion,” said Yurij Rudensky, an attorney who works on redistricting at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, which advocates for voting rights.

Kati Phillips, a Common Cause spokesperson, added that her group believed that “all other partisan gerrymandering cases pending in the federal courts will halt.”

Redistricting is the process of redrawing voting maps for a state’s legislative and congressional delegations. When unusually partisan, it is also known as “gerrymandering” due to a serpentine map accepted in 1812 by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry.

State legislatures usually hold the power to redraw these maps once per decade, following the federal census, leaving the party in power the chance to entrench its majority. In North Carolina, Republicans won 53 percent of votes across the state in the 2016 U.S. House of Representatives elections but claimed 10 of 13 seats, or 77 percent.

Some challenges against how maps were drawn relied on relatively new metrics developed by political scientists to better quantify the impact of partisan gerrymandering.

Roberts’ opinion took a swipe at these efforts by writing that no test “meets the need for a limited and precise standard” that would be usable in courts.

The liberal justices, joining in a dissenting decision written by Justice Elena Kagan, took aim at the ruling, blasting the court’s decision to refuse to “remedy a constitutional violation.”

“The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights,” Kagan wrote.

Roberts clarified that, while federal courts were removed from the issue, other avenues toward evolving the redistricting system remained open.

“Numerous States are actively addressing the issue through state constitutional amendments and legislation placing power to draw electoral districts in the hands of independent commissions, mandating particular districting criteria for their mapmakers, or prohibiting drawing district lines for partisan advantage,” Roberts wrote.

Jeffrey M. Wice was a longtime redistricting attorney for the Democrats and works on the topic with the National Conference of State Legislatures. He said the decision “opened the door for cases to be brought to state supreme courts,” and he expects continued attempts at the state level to do away with highly politicized gerrymandering.

“Voters are going to turn to creating independent redistricting commission, wherever state law allows that, if politicians continue to be greedy and overreaching in partisan line drawing,” Wice said.

Last year’s elections saw a surging movement to force states to take politics out of map drawing by introducing independent commissioners or demographers who would be in charge of redistricting. Voters in November approved such ballot measures in Colorado, Utah, Michigan and Missouri.

Voters in other states, including Arkansas and Oklahoma, are making a push for similar changes.

There is some movement at the federal level, too, where a Democratic bill known as the For the People Act of 2019 passed the U.S. House in March. Among its many purposes was ending partisan redistricting, although it is unlikely the Republican-controlled Senate will take up the bill.

Common Cause’s Phillips said that her organization would continue the fight state by state, with a focus on state-level legislation, cases brought in state courts and ballot initiatives. Another case in North Carolina is expected to be heard in July.

“Today was disappointing, but it’s not the end,” Phillips said. “It’s just the beginning. It’s a state-based fight. It’s a voter-based fight.”

Clarification: June 27, 6 p.m.: This story was clarified to say that redistricting is known as gerrymandering when the redistricting is unusually partisan.


Supreme Court Redistricting Ruling Is Mixed Bag For Missouri Critics Of Gerrymandering

Originally posted in the St. Louis Public Radio on June 27, 2019.

In many respects, Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision taking partisan gerrymandering cases out of the purview of federal courts has a mixed impact for Missouri.

On the one hand, the court’s majority opinion didn’t preclude states from adopting rules to curb maps that help one party or the other. It specifically mentioned a successful ballot initiative known as Clean Missouri that created a new redistricting system aimed at state House and Senate maps that emphasize partisan fairness.

But the decision could make it significantly harder to challenge Missouri’s congressional map for being skewed for a political party. Missouri’s Legislature and governor are responsible for coming up with congressional maps, where partisan gerrymandering is not specifically prohibited. Clean Missouri did not affect that process.

Sean Soendker Nicholson helped pass Clean Missouri last year. It turned over much of the power to draw House and Senate districts to an appointed demographer, who would have to draw maps that emphasize, among other things, competitiveness and partisan fairness.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that just because federal courts won’t address partisan gerrymandering doesn’t mean the court “neither condones excessive partisan gerrymandering nor condemns complaints about districting to echo into a void.” Nicholson said that means if a state legislative map runs afoul of the rules laid out in Clean Missouri, someone could sue in a state court.

But replicating a Clean Missouri-like system in every state may not be possible. Nicholson said that while Missouri allows citizen-led ballot initiatives to change laws or the constitution, other states either make that process very difficult or basically impossible.

“So I think that’s why there was optimism and hope that the Supreme Court would strike down the partisan gerrymanders in Maryland, where Democrats clearly passed a gerrymander, and in North Carolina, where Republicans clearly passed a gerrymander,” Nicholson said. “There was optimism that the Supreme Court would say, ‘Hey, those are totally out of bounds.’ And neither one of those are states where citizens can act through the initiative process.”

Roberts’ decision also stated that the framers of the constitution “gave Congress the power to do something about partisan gerrymandering in the Elections Clause.” Nicholson, though, said he isn’t optimistic there will be federal legislation dealing with that issue when it comes to congressional maps. Any changes to the Missouri congressional redistricting system would either have to pass through a GOP-controlled Legislature or require a constitutional amendment that needs to be approved through a statewide vote.

“I don’t have a lot of optimism that the state Legislature or Congress is going to act on this in the short term,” Nicholson said. “But I think that’s where we’re going to have to as a nation come to terms with what a disaster partisan gerrymandering is across the country. Democrats do it when left to their own devices. Republicans do it when left to their own devices. And it’s an American practice that needs to end.”

Some Missouri lawmakers have sought to undo much of the Clean Missouri state legislative redistricting system — which Justice Elena Kagan alluded to in her opinion. She wrote “before the demographer had drawn a single line, members of the state legislature had introduced a bill to start undoing the change.”

“I’d put better odds on that bill’s passage than on all the congressional proposals the majority cites,” Kagan wrote.

Voters, not legislators, would have the final say over whether the new state legislative redistricting system stays in place.

The buck stops here

One big consequence for states without specific prohibitions on partisan gerrymandering is it could place a lot more pressure on governors to curb maps that benefit a political party.

That may be a tough sell, especially in states like Missouri and Illinois where one party controls the state legislature and governor’s office. While the Missouri governorship will be up for grabs in 2020, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker will get a chance to sign off on Illinois’ congressional and state legislative plans.

“I will not sign a bill that is gerrymandered,” Pritzker said last year. “I have been for independent maps for a long time now. I really believe that we have to have more fair elections.”

While Republicans controlled the redistricting process in many states after the 2010 elections, Democrats ended up sending then-Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn maps that benefited their party. Pritzker, though, said last year that he would even stand up to people like powerful Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan if they pushed a gerrymandered map to his desk.


Missourian Editorial: Clean Missouri Retained

Originally posted in the eMissourian on May 23, 2019.

Legislation aimed at doing away with Clean Missouri, Amendment 1, approved by voters last November, was defeated in the Senate Fiscal Oversight Committee. The one provision that this legislation, HJR48, targeted was to have another vote that if passed would have done away with the nonpartisan plan for redistricting,

SB213 did pass, and awaits the governor’s signature, which establishes rules for the nonpartisan state demographer and empowers citizens to be more engaged in the upcoming redistricting process. SB213 implements what voters overwhelmingly approved last November.

The overall goal in this legislation is to end gerrymandering that gives one of the political parties an advantage when legislative boundaries are drawn every 10 years.

The Clean Missouri coalition was elated to see the proposed gerrymandering plan defeated, but it expects the lobbyists and politicians to try again to pass a similar proposal. Clean Missouri, a bipartisan coalition of citizens who fought for two years to pass redistricting and ethics reforms, said it will continue to “fight for a responsive, accountable and transparent state government.”

The reasoning by some lawmakers in supporting another vote to restore gerrymandering didn’t hold water. Their reasoning was hoodwinked by politics.


Missourian Editorial: Accomplishments by Legislature

Originally posted in the eMissourian on May 23, 2019.

The Missouri General Assembly can point with a degree of pride to its accomplishments in the session that ended last week. Of course, there was disappointment that some bills didn’t pass and disagreement with some of the successful measures that were approved.

It was a good session for Gov. Mike Parson, who championed some of the legislation that passed even though some of the approved bills were not quite what he wanted. His goals were mostly reached.

The Republican majority sent the governor one of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills in the nation. He is expected to sign it. Gov. Parson advocated a “culture of life” for the state. For many Missourians who have fought under the banner of pro-life for many decades, it was an answer to their prayers.

Gov. Parson also wanted an infrastructure improvement program and the General Assembly delivered, approving a bridge bonding measure which wasn’t exactly what he proposed but it is an important start.

Incentives for business and workforce development programs were moved forward by the Legislature. An incentive package for the General Motors plant at Wentzville was approved. The $50 million in incentives will help GM expand its plant.

Not all public schools are pleased with a bill that passed, which bars districts from starting classes earlier than 14 days before the first Monday of September.

The governor had spirited opposition on some of his priorities by Republicans who created a conservative caucus. But overall, in the end, most of those priorities were approved except in a slightly different form.

A veteran of both the House and Senate, and a year as lieutenant governor, Gov. Parson understands compromise in getting along with the legislative branch. The governor is quite a contrast to former Gov. Eric Greitens, who believed more in promoting himself than working on behalf of Missourians. His resignation brought a welcomed change to state government.

One of the most significant bills that was defeated was one to weaken Clean Missouri, the ethics reform measure and redistricting that was approved by voters last November. Also defeated was a bill to allow teachers to carry guns and permit concealed weapons in public buildings, including college campuses, child care facilities and places of worship.

Also defeated was a measure that would ban local public officials from accepting lobbyist gifts exceeding $5, and exempt records from disclosure that contain advice, opinions and recommendations that any member of a “public governmental body” receives or prepares.

Overall it was a successful session, especially from the governor’s and the majority of Missourians’ standpoint.


Missourian Editor’s Notebook: Fear Redistricting

Originally posted in the eMissourian on May 17, 2019.

The General Assembly, as it winds down with another session this week, may pass legislation calling for another vote on the Clean Missouri amendment. They want to kill the voter-approved Amendment 1 initiative that was approved last November.

Republicans’ main fear is that the nonpartisan redistricting provision might endanger their party’s hold on legislative districts. Republicans are comfortable in the present boundaries, which give their party a majority in the House and Senate.

They want another costly statewide vote on a new plan that would kill the amendment to the constitution, approved by voters with an overwhelming majority that calls for a “nonpartisan” demographer to draw legislative boundaries. Republicans want a “bipartisan” panel to redraw the boundaries, much as to what was done in the past, and which didn’t work in fairness to both parties. It was political, with party deals being made by members of the panel.

An example is Franklin County, which is divided into four House districts, all held by Republicans. To divide Franklin County that way doesn’t make any sense and it’s unfair to voters. It’s confusing!

One of the arguments against the Republicans is that to change or eliminate Clean Missouri is going against the wishes of voters. Some Republicans claim that it really isn’t going against the voters’ wishes since the bill calls for another statewide vote.

That argument is an insult to voters’ intelligence, who approved the Clean Missouri amendment by a 61 to 38 percent margin in November. In Franklin County the margin of passage of Clean Missouri was 54 to 45 percent.

The politicians who are interested in being in safe districts for their own well-being fought Clean Missouri from its inception. Those politicians fear their re-election, and/or the party’s political standing, may be endangered if a nonpartisan demographer draws the legislative boundaries.

The bill that may pass before the session ends Friday was given birth out of fear that the party in the majority in the General Assembly may lose ground under a truly nonpartisan way of drawing the boundaries as called for in Clean Missouri.

About the only way for Missourians to keep Clean Missouri’s provisions, if the bill passes and there is another statewide vote, is to vote to retain the amendment by an even stronger majority.

If an issue is given a strong majority in a statewide election, and the Legislature immediately passes a bill calling for another election to kill what the voters approved, it is insulting to the people of Missouri and goes against all democratic principles.