California’s Citizens Redistricting Commission has a simple mission. Once a decade, the independent board of 14 regular citizens is asked to examine the latest census data, hold a bunch of hearings and apply some computer wizardry, some constitutional principles and some old-fashioned common sense to draw new boundaries for state, legislative and congressional districts.
Up until 2010, the task belonged to state legislators who had more to gain by crafting districts that crammed in voters they liked and broke up blocs of voters they didn’t. That process led, at times, to absurdly elongated and oddly attenuated districts designed to ensure the re-election of a particular incumbent or to serve as a “safe” seat for a particular political party. The practice is called “gerrymandering,” a term that combines the name of former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and the salamander-shaped district he approved in 1812 to keep his party in power. (That party was known as the Democratic-Republican Party, in case you were wondering).
Although gerrymandering may be an effective tool for parties and incumbents seeking to keep their seats, it is not healthy for democracy to disenfranchise voters and dilute the political power of communities. In 2008, Californians in their wisdom decided to toss out that unfair system in favor of an independent redistricting commission. Elected officials and their friends, associates and families need not apply.
Most U.S. state legislatures still draw their own political districts. But interest in independent redistricting has been spreading, and since the Supreme Court has refused to ban gerrymandering outright, government reform groups see redistricting commissions as one of the only routes left to fair and independent political districts. Last year, Colorado and Michigan both established citizens redistricting commissions similar to California’s; other states are considering some form of independent redistricting as well.
Needless to say, political parties are not happy about losing control over map-drawing. The California Democratic Party opposed Prop. 11, which created the citizens redistricting commission. But in many places the stakes are much higher for the GOP. According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, only about a quarter of Americans identify as Republicans, yet thanks to gerrymandering, the GOP controls a disproportionate number of state legislatures. Not surprisingly, Republicans have taken a particular interest in stamping out independent redistricting proposals as they crop up around the country.
For the most part, these efforts haven’t meant much for California, which has already passed its law and is currently taking applications for the 2020 redistricting commission.
Until now, that is. Republicans in Michigan last month sued to stop that state from seating its first citizens redistricting commission. They have reason to be worried about new political maps: Michigan is widely seen as the most gerrymandered state in the country and Republicans managed to hold on to control of the state Legislature in November even though more Democrats turned out on election day than Republicans. New maps would most likely change the power balance in Michigan.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court and is backed by a group with ties to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, headed by Wisconsin’s former Republican governor, Scott Walker. Their novel argument is that it is a violation of the 1st Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to prohibit politicians from serving on the commission, and they cite court precedents involving employers and employees. But for one thing, serving on a commission is not the same thing as holding a job. For another, it makes total sense that the Michigan and California laws take precautions to keep their independent commissions from being captured by the very politicians who stand to gain or lose by its decisions. We certainly hope the court agrees.
Normally we won’t be too worried about such a desperate measure by politicians hoping to hang on to their power, but if the court ultimately sides with the challengers — and stranger things have happened — it could render California’s citizens commission unconstitutional as well as those in Arizona and Colorado.
This attack is nothing more than a desperate ploy by self-interested politicians trying to manipulate elections, and we hope the court rejects it. Ironically, it wouldn’t do California’s endangered GOP any favors to return to partisan map-drawing. The Democratic-controlled Legislature might finally figure out how to redistrict GOP stalwarts like Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove and Devin Nunes of Tulare right out of office.