The concept of an independent citizens’ commission redrawing the lines for legislative districts every 10 years has become increasingly popular over the past two decades, but more often than not the practice benefits the Democratic Party.
The logic behind the commissions is that nonpartisan citizens will draw districts for lawmakers that favor neither party and are truly competitive.
If one removes the power to redraw the districts from state legislators — who historically oversee the redistricting process in most states — then so-called “incumbent protection plans” resulting from safe districts will disappear.
The problem with this concept is, like so much else that is conceived, it doesn’t seem to work out the way it should in real life.
In the last two decades, 15 states have shifted the redistricting pen into the hands of “citizens’ commissions,” or ostensibly nonpartisan panels other than state legislatures.
In virtually every case, it is Democrats who have gained in redistricting from the “nonpartisan” mechanisms.
“That’s because Democrats, being savvier political animals than Republicans, know how to ‘game’ the system and get on these panels,” one seasoned redistricting expert who has actually drawn maps for state legislators (and who requested anonymity) told me. “Republicans don’t even try.”
He was referring to the California “citizens’ commission” enacted in 2009 by voters in a statewide initiative and strongly supported by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Under the plan, the 14 members of the commission — five Republicans, five Democrats, and four “Declined to State” (Californian for “independent”) — would be drawn from a lottery by the state auditor.
When the plan of the commission for congressional districts was unveiled in 2011, former state GOP Chairman Mike Schroeder told me: “The results from the reapportionment process will do significant damage to the Republican Party. We could easily lose two and as many as five congressional seats. And the current lines for legislative districts suggest that Democrats may win two-thirds of the seats in the State Assembly and State Senate — or enough to permit Democrats to enact tax increases under state law. It’s not good at all.”
The online publication CalWatchdog exposed how the allegedly nonpartisan commission members held Democratic interests.
This led redistricting expert Tony Quinn to write: “Dante condemned those who betray a public trust to the hottest place in hell. My candidate for Dante’s inferno this week is State Auditor Elaine Howle, who created the poll of candidates that formed the Citizens Redistricting Commission.”
Quinn recounted how one commissioner managed to help craft a State Senate district for his friend, without disclosing a campaign contribution made to the politician.
“Foul!” cried former Republican Rep. George Radanovich of California, who sought a new referendum to turn the process over to a panel of retired judges.
But it was too late. The lines stayed in place. California Republicans suffered a net loss of four U.S. House seats in 2012, reducing their ranks in the 53-member Golden State delegation to a modern low of 15.
Arizona Republicans are now waging the same fight against their commission-drawn lines.
In a state where Republicans have the most registered voters, Democrats emerged with a 5-to-4 advantage in the Grand Canyon State’s nine-member U.S. House delegation last fall.
“That should explain everything,” former State GOP Chairman Randy Pullen told me. “The Democrats put this commission in 13 years ago because they knew they could game the system and they knew what a benefit it would be to them.”
In 2000, Arizona voters enacted an initiative doing away with districts drawn by the state legislature and giving the power to a citizens’ commission. In large part, the initiative was bankrolled by Democratic State Chairman Jim Pederson, later the party’s nominee for U.S. senator in 2006.
Republicans in Arizona are not going to wait until it is too late. They are already in court trying to overturn the lines drawn by the commission in 2011.
If Republicans emerge triumphant before a three-judge U.S. District Court panel, it is expected a new commission will be ordered to draw fresh lines. Restoring the Legislature’s power to redistrict will take another statewide initiative.
All “inside-baseball,” you say? Perhaps. But when there are close votes in the U.S. House on major issues that could go either way, one might well think of how those votes would be different if districts were drawn another way.
John Gizzi is the former political editor for Human Events, working for the conservative weekly from 1979 to 2013. Gizzi is a recipient of the William A. Rusher Award for Journalistic Excellence, was named Journalist of the Year by the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2002, and has appeared on hundreds of radio and TV talk shows.
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