Gerrymandering Opponents Win Key Victories

By: - November 7, 2018 12:00 am

Demonstrators rally outside the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing, Michigan, where the state Supreme Court heard arguments in July on whether voters should decide how the state’s voting maps are drawn. Michigan and several other states voted Tuesday on establishing redistricting commissions. Dale G. Young/The Detroit News via The Associated Press

This story is part of Stateline’s midterm election coverage.

Voters in two states approved measures to have independent commissions — rather than politically charged state legislatures — draw the boundaries of districts where candidates will run for Congress and state legislatures. A third state measure held a slight lead.

Commissions won approval in Colorado and Michigan. In Utah, a commission measure was leading 50.3 to 49.7 percent with about three-quarters of the vote tallied. The measures are an effort to beat back gerrymandering by legislators who often come under pressure to protect incumbents or favor parties when drawing district lines. 

Voters in Colorado passed two separate amendments — one for congressional districts and one for state legislative districts — by about 71 to 29 percent.

It was slightly closer in Michigan, but voters approved a redistricting commission, 61 to 39 percent.

A similar measure in Missouri, creating a “state demographer” position to draw up plans for a commission, also won overwhelming approval, 62 to 38 percent. 

This election saw the highest number of redistricting-related ballot measures in a single year since 1982, according to Ballotpedia, a nonprofit website that tracks ballot measures.

In addition to Tuesday’s measures, Ohio voters in May approved a change requiring bipartisan votes in the legislature on any redistricting plan. If a bipartisan consensus can’t be reached, a commission would draw the lines.

“It’s just simply become a hot topic,” said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It used to be only an arcane topic for those who were interested in government. I do think increased partisanship contributes.”

Underhill said there is more interest not only in who does redistricting, but how those lines are drawn. “This decade, there’s interest in what those standards might be — districts that are contiguous and compact, and in competitiveness and fairness, whatever that might mean.”

About two dozen states currently have commissions involved in redistricting. But their makeup varies widely, leading some political scholars to wonder whether commissions do a better job than state legislators.

Colorado’s legislature, led by a bipartisan coalition, voted unanimously to put the independent commission questions on Tuesday’s ballot. One question called for the creation of an independent commission to redraw congressional district lines and the other to draw state legislative district lines. Each commission will have 12 members, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and some independents.

Under Michigan’s new constitutional amendment, both congressional and legislative districts will be created by a commission. The citizen initiative had a rocky path to the ballot.

The citizens group Voters not Politicians gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot. But the group Citizens Protecting Michigan’s Constitution sued, arguing that the initiative would change the “fundamental operation of state government.” The Michigan Supreme Court decided 4-3 in late July that the measure qualified for the ballot.

Utah’s Proposition 4 would create an independent, seven-member commission to draft election maps for both congressional and state legislative districts. 

In Missouri, the approved ballot initiative will have a nonpartisan state demographer file proposed maps with the existing election commissions. The maps would need support from 70 percent of commissioners. The demographer is tasked with considering “partisan fairness and competitiveness,” contiguousness, compactness and the boundaries of existing political subdivisions in drawing up the plan.

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.