How a Cure for Gerrymandering Left U.S. Politics Ailing in New Ways

In Virginia, members of a bipartisan committee have been tasked with drawing a new map of the state’s congressional districts. But politics got in the way. Shrinking to screams, accusations and tears, they surrendered.

In Ohio, the Republicans who control the legislature simply ignored the state’s redistricting commission, choosing to draw a highly manipulative map themselves. Democrats in New York are likely to follow a similar path next year.

And in Arizona and Michigan, independent mapmakers besieged shadowy lobbying campaigns disguised as spontaneous grassroots political organizing.

Party district division is as old as the republic, but good government experts believed they had worked out a solution with independent commissions, advisory groups, and external committees. The reasoning went that getting the mapping process out of the hands of lawmakers under pressure to win elections would make American democracy fairer.

But as this year’s once-a-decade redistricting descends into trench warfare, both Republicans and Democrats They were throwing grenades at the independent experts who were caught in the middle.

In country after country, the parties have largely abandoned their commitments to representative maps. Each side understands the enormous stakes: redistricting alone could determine which party controls Congress over the next decade.

In some states, commissions with poorly designed structures have fallen victim to entrenched political divisions, leading to action taking to the courts. In other cases, the commissions’ authority was subverted by state legislators, who either forced commissioners to draft new maps or chose to make their own.

New York state Democratic lawmakers, who could bypass the state’s independent redistricting commission by an overwhelming majority, ignored a draft proposal the commission announced in September. In Wisconsin, where a court battle over redistricting was already beginning to unfold between the Republicans who control the legislature and Democratic Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, the state’s speaker, Robin Voss, dismissed the governor’s People’s Map Committee.

“There is no such thing as a nonpartisan committee,” Voss, a Republican, said at a hearing last month. He said that all the commissioners are partisan. “If they vote, they vote for someone in one of the two parties.”

For decades, people of good will have seen independent commissions as a critical means of eliminating the games that anger many voters and distort American politics: protecting incumbents, devaluing the people’s vote, and the polarization and toughness that fuel it all.

As a supposed solution, the independent commissions were not completely insulated from politics. Changes were often backed by Democrats, who felt they were being overtaken by the Republican majority in the state’s role and the maps drawn by the Republican Party that seemed to set those partisan leanings on the rocks.

But in the current environment, reform has often fallen short.

Some independent commissions have found success: Colorado recently passed a map that redistricting experts saw as fair, and early drafts from Arizona were given high marks for fairness. Even in states like Virginia where the process has been difficult, nonpartisan groups working to end electoral manipulation say commissions have been an improvement.

“If politicians are given the opportunity to map partisanship, they will,” said Ally Marcella, a research analyst with a nonpartisan group focused on redistricting and electoral reforms.

During the first decade of the 21st century, Democratic groups in states where the party was locked into state minorities attempted, with some success, to create external redistricting bodies to wrest some power from the Republicans.

After Michigan voters created a committee through a ballot initiative in 2018, the state’s Republican Party sued to stop its formation. The party lost.

Last week, Utah Republicans adopted their own maps, ignoring proposals from the redistricting commission that voters approved in 2018. On Monday, the Washington state redistricting commission missed a deadline to finish its maps, sending drawing authority to the state Supreme Court.

And in Iowa, where the legislature’s professional nonpartisan staff has been mapping since 1980, state Republican lawmakers rejected this year’s first proposal, which would have given Democrats an edge in two of the state’s four congressional seats. Lawmakers later approved a second staff-proposed map where former President Donald J. Trump implemented all four counties in 2020.

When the Michigan commission got its start this year, a new group called Fair Maps emerged, with several former Republican officials on its payroll. The GOP and Fair Maps held training sessions where they directed the Allies to push for preferred maps.

During a virtual training session in October, Megan Ricking, an official with Michigan’s Fair Maps who is also a Republican county chief, instructed attendees to push for a “Maple Map” (all of the Michigan commission’s map proposals are named after trees) because it was the best for the party.

She said during training, according to an audio review by The New York Times.

Democratic officials have offered similar exercises. An email from the Washtenaw County Democratic Party urged supporters to flood the comments section online in support of “Cherry Map.”

Officials in both the Democratic and Republican parties argued that they were simply helping ordinary citizens to have a say in the process.

“All of our comments lead to ‘Let’s Make Maps Fair,’ rather than ‘This is how we draw a map that ensures all Democrats are elected,'” said Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Board of Directors.

Gustavo Portela, a Michigan Republican Party spokesman, confirmed that Fair Maps was not part of the party.

In Arizona, where voters in 2000 approved a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission, the public comment process this year has been flooded with nearly identical commentary pushing partisan narratives on both sides, outlined in a report by the Center for Public Integrity. It started long before the lines were drawn.

Several of the comments can be traced to a Telegram account belonging to a conservative group called Arizona Red Roots, as well as a Facebook post by a local Republican sorority, identified in a report by the Center for Public Integrity.

Erica Schupak-Newberg, independent chair of the Arizona Commission, said the campaigns were easily recognizable — and he welcomed them, too.

“If any organization is able to mobilize an enthusiastic group, I want to know who they are,” she said. “I want to know the numbers because this is an important community.”

Some redistricting committees have tried to protect themselves from pressure and influence campaigns. In Colorado, the office of the secretary of state accused three men with ties to the state’s Republican Party of trying to influence redistricting without properly registering them as lobbyists.

“There was definitely a battle over the influence of the Twelve Commissioners,” said Simon Tafua, the Democratic commissioner.

But as in Arizona, members of the commission in Colorado said it was easy to detect the influence exerted by either party, and noted that the presence of unaffiliated members of the commission who had no ties to either party helped offset any attempts by members two parties to coordinate. external campaign.

“You can’t take politics out of redistricting,” said Bill Lyon, the Republican member of the Colorado Committee. “There is no way to make redistricting not a zero-sum game.”

Perhaps nowhere was this difficulty more evident than in Virginia. The 16-member state commission was divided between eight legislators and eight citizens, with Democrats and Republicans equal representation but not independents.

Since its inception, the committee has deadlocked 8 to 8 in nearly every vote, on everything from procedural rules to potential map designs. At one point, three Democrats withdrew from the meeting to prevent a quorum.

“Virginia is a bipartisan committee, but with the partisans chosen by the political leadership of the two houses in the General Assembly — so it’s not just partisan, it’s very partisan,” said Marcus Simon, a state Democratic legislator who was a member of the committee. “So you’re getting the other party’s most trusted partisans and sending them to a duel, instead of making concessions.”

Simon accused former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican, of taking help on a proposed map from the Republican Redistricting Fund, a group central to the party’s efforts to influence redistricting across the country. The Republicans on the committee accepted Mr. Davis’ map as the one they wanted to consider, leading Simon to accuse them of “collusion.”

Mr. Davis said in an interview that he drew the map himself, but the Republican group helped him introduce it because, he said, he was “a little bit afraid of technology.”

The commission’s work ended in deadlock, and the process was taken up to the Virginia Supreme Court. Last week, both Virginia parties nominated candidates to help the court map out.

Among the Republican candidates: Adam Kinkade, executive director of the Republican Fund for Redistricting. The court rejected his nomination.

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