Why Redistricting Commissions Aren’t Immune From Politics

By: - January 27, 2012 12:00 am

Until recently, not many people in Colorado had ever heard of Mario Carrera. An executive at Entravision, which owns a number of Spanish-language TV and radio stations, Carrera’s world existed off-camera, far from the drama of politics playing out on the news on his stations.

That changed last May when Carerra was appointed to serve as the lone independent on the state commission charged with handling state legislative redistricting in Colorado. By the end of the year, the man who came to be known as “Super Mario” was the most controversial person in Colorado politics. Upset with how the commission’s political maps turned out, the Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives called Carerra a “failure.” The conservative group Compass Colorado went a step further when it called on Entravision to fire Carrera from his day job.

The anger came from the fact that Carrera had sided with the commission’s five Democrats — and against its five Republicans — on a new political map for Colorado. One GOP member on the commission said that  Carrera hadn’t been independent at all but rather a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a view that Republicans saw as confirmed when word circulated that he had attended a fundraiser for President Obama while on the commission. For his part, Carrera pointed out that the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party had recommended his appointment.

The irony of all this is that Carrera was appointed specifically to try and take some of the politics out of redistricting. Colorado set up an independent commission back in 1974. The idea was to take the job of drawing political boundaries out of the self-interested hands of state legislators, a concept whose appeal has been growing. More than a dozen states now use some variation of an independent commission, with California the latest to give it a try.

In Colorado, legislative leaders, the governor and the chief justice of the state supreme court all get to make appointments. In past decades, one party always ended up with more members. This time, though, Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and Chief Justice Michael Bender, a Democratic appointee, acted to ensure neither party had a majority.

But partisan balance doesn’t necessarily create partisan comity. Bob Loevy, a Republican who served on the commission with Carrera, has published an online book on the experience called Confessions of a Reapportionment Commissioner . “The commission essentially, all through its work, says, ‘Do we want to take the Republican or the Democratic plan,’ ” Loevy told Stateline . “What looks like a great reform in 1974, it’s all just a cover for the political parties.”

Colorado isn’t the only state in the latest round of redistricting where an independent commission intended to tamp down partisanship wound up sparking partisan fireworks anyway. Commission processes in Arizona, California and Idaho were also contentious and litigious. The lesson from these states seems to be that even when independent commissions take partisans out of redistricting, they can’t take out the partisanship.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that independent redistricting commissions have failed. To the contrary, many of the people who have served on independent commissions argue that, in some cases, it may be evidence that they have succeeded in crafting plans that didn’t serve elected officials’ self-interest. “Everyone is so entrenched in their own agenda and party,” Carrera says. “I do believe that there is a purpose that was served by separating this commission from the legislature.”

Varying structures

Commissions are in charge of redrawing maps for legislative districts, congressional districts or both in 13 states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Ohio, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Washington. Some of these states go to greater lengths than others to achieve independence. Some of the commissions forbid elected officials from serving, while others include them by law. Some prevent party-line votes, while others are regularly dominated by one party or the other. Still, each of these commissions was created for a similar purpose: to take redistricting out of the hands of state legislators who have a personal stake in the outcome.

No state has created a more elaborate process to do that than California, where a 2008 ballot initiative created the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Among other things, the law rejects out of hand anyone who in the past 10 years has run for state or federal office; anyone who has been a registered lobbyist; anyone who has worked for a political candidate, campaign or party; and even anyone who has made large political contributions.

Before the California commission ever drew a map, however, Republicans were already accusing the body of being co-opted by Democrats, based on its selection of consultants. Those accusations gained some weight when a ProPublica investigation pointed to places where the commission had adopted district lines promoted by supposed “good government” groups that actually were run by Democratic operatives. Democrats are expected to gain seats under California’s new maps. “It wasn’t so much that the Democrats tried,” says Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government and one of the consultants the commission passed over. “Of course they tried. The surprise is that it worked.”

Democrats and many of the commission’s members say those allegations are overblown. The congressional map is currently in court, while the state Senate map may be subject to a voter referendum instigated by Republicans.

Arizona’s independent commission also riled opposition. Republicans accused the commission of violating state open meeting laws, procurement laws and the state constitution’s standards for drawing of districts. Much of their ire was focused at the commission’s lone independent, Colleen Mathis, whose husband had worked on a Democrat’s legislative campaign in 2010. Governor Jan Brewer and fellow Republicans briefly succeeded in impeaching Mathis, only to have her reinstated by the Arizona Supreme Court. They also briefly contemplated trying to eliminate the commission entirely.

Then, there’s Idaho’s Reapportionment Commission, whose membership of three Democrats and Republicans has been rotating through a cast of new characters for months. First, the commission failed to meet a September 6 deadline for drawing state legislative districts. So the state Supreme Court disbanded the group and had a new commission appointed. The second panel did approve a map, only to have the Court reject it for violating the state constitution’s standards.

After that, Republicans engaged in a struggle over whether a third effort at drawing maps should require a third set of commission members to do the work. Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko and House Speaker Lawerence Denney wanted to remove the people they appointed to the second commission — Denney says his caucus believes they conceded too much to the Democrats — but were rebuffed by the Idaho Supreme Court. Any more delays could become problematic from an elections administration perspective: The filing period for legislative candidates ends March 9, without any districts for them to run in.

Evan Frasure, the Republican co-chair of the first Idaho panel, helped to initiate the commission structure in 1994 when he served in the Idaho legislature. Still, he concedes that taking redistricting out of the hands of the legislature hasn’t gone smoothly. “Rather than having 105 legislators duking it out, now you have six people,” Frasure says, “but it did not remove the partisan nature of it.”

A better result?

Not every state with an independent commission has ended up mired in controversy. In Washington, for example, a commission with two Democrats and two Republicans unanimously approved new legislative and congressional lines. One of the Republican commissioners, former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, called Washington’s approach, “the best in the country.”

Nor is it clear that the states with commissions have been more contentious than anywhere else. Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin and Maryland, all states where legislators themselves control redistricting, have approved plans that the minority party decried as flagrant gerrymanders and all of them ended up in court. It’s just that, if the commissions were supposed to take the partisanship out, they haven’t done it.

Defenders of commissions argue that their purpose was never to take the partisanship out of the process so much as it was to take some of the partisanship out of the outcome. It’s hard to say, though, whether the final product in commission states is really all that different. There’s no one set of good-government principles that political maps should follow, let alone an accepted way of proving that those principles have been met. While the maps produced in some commission states seem to suggest partisan meddling, there are also signs that the commissions ended up drawing more competitive districts than legislatures might have if left to their own devices.

In Colorado, for example, Republicans complained that the state legislative maps drew 10 GOP incumbents — including three members of their leadership — into just 5 seats. At the same time, however, the maps also greatly increased the number of seats that both Democrats and Republicans have a chance to win. Even Loevy, a critic of the process, says that Carrera deserved credit for upping the number of competitive seats. 

Similarly, in California, the commission process clearly made a difference in terms of competitiveness. Stan Forbes, the independent who chaired the commission, points out that in the past decade, with maps the legislature created, only five times out of 765 elections did a congressional or legislative seat switch hands between the parties. “The 2001 lines were the incumbent protection act and they said so,” says Forbes, a bookstore owner. “Everyone was candid that that was what happened.”

This time, with the California commission forbidden from even viewing political data, the new congressional map has already shaken things up. Several of the seats are expected to be hotly contested by the parties throughout the decade. Six California members of Congress have announced they won’t run again. Four others are in incumbent-on-incumbent races in two districts. With outcomes like those, it’s no surprise the maps have prompted an animated debate. 

“Anybody that does redistricting in any process, it’s always a contentious endeavor,” says Kim Brace, a redistricting consultant. “You’re dealing with peoples’ livelihood. You’re making the decisions of does this person live or die, politically.”

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman helps lead research on fiscal management and place-based economic development programs as part of Pew’s state fiscal health project. Goodman has served as a primary author for Pew studies that examine how states should evaluate tax incentives and maintain budget discipline when implementing those incentives.