Bids to take gerrymandering power from Democrats beginning in two states
There are rumblings in two of the nation's most reliably blue states about taking partisan politics out of the business of drawing legislative boundaries for the coming decade. And some of the Democrats in power sound ready to go along.
Discussions are in their early stages in both Oregon and Illinois, but a sustained drive to end partisan gerrymandering in either place would be one of the bigger stories of the coming year in the world of democracy reform.
Big changes in the rules of redistricting could also affect the balancing of power on Capitol Hill, in Salem and in Springfield when new maps get drawn after the next census — although a long run of election results suggest the Democratic dominance in both states will not be readily threatened.
The drive to take away line-drawing powers from politicians is much farther along in Oregon. Last week advocates filed papers starting the process of getting a referendum on next November's ballot that would turn the cartography over to a commission of a dozen ordinary citizens: four Democrats, four Republicans and four who identify with a third party or as independents.
The next step is to gather more than 150,000 signatures on petitions. The organizer of the effort is People Not Politicians, which was born to push the successful 2018 ballot initiative creating a similar independent redistricting panel in Republican-run Michigan.
The proposal has already drawn an unusual range of backers, from Common Cause and the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group on the left to the Farm Bureau and the Taxpayer Association of Oregon on the right. Also endorsing the effort are local chapters of the NAACP, the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters.
"Farmers do not get to choose their weather. Politicians should not choose their voters," the Oregon Farm Bureau said in a statement to the East Oregonian.
A spokeswoman for state Democrats, Molly Woon, said the party would not take a position on the ballot measure until at least next year, but may still be neutral after that.
The gerrymandering measure would become the second significant democracy reform proposal on the Oregon ballot in 2020, joining a state constitutional amendment to explicitly allow campaign finance limits.
At the Illinois capital, meanwhile, legislators in both parties have been in discussion in recent days about ways they could combat the public's perception of a culture of corruption in state government. And turning over redistricting to an outside group has secured some bipartisan interest, spurred on by the advocacy group Change Illinois, which says the state "is a leading example of the harm that gerrymandering does to our democracy."
"I think we do need to amend our constitution and relinquish the political control that lawmakers have over redistricting," GOP state Sen. Jason Barickman told the Alton Telegraph.
"I really want to see us do more work on how we change the culture here, so continue to do work in that arena," added Democratic state Sen. Melinda Bush. "How do we look at those issues? How do we make sure that the people that we're electing, that we're getting good representation? So looking at fair maps."
More than 500,000 voters signed a petition to get an independent redistricting commission proposal on the statewide ballot in 2016, but the referendum was killed through a legal challenge by Democrats. Now, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker is on record vowing "to make sure that here in Illinois we're not gerrymandering, that we're drawing maps that are fair and competitive."
Democrats have controlled Oregon's government for 11 of the past 13 years and now enjoy significant majorities in the Legislature. The party has held all levers of policymaking power in Illinois for 13 of the past 17 years and also has lopsided control of the General Assembly.
So if independent commissions take over, they will probably have their biggest impact on the power dynamic at the congressional level. Very limited population growth this decade means Illinois is nearly certain to lose one of its House seats, which now skew 13 to 5 for the Democrats, while Oregon's growth means it will gain a seat in addition to the four now held by Democrats and one by a Republican.
The fight against partisan gerrymandering has intensified in both state courts and the drive for ballot initiatives since the Supreme Court ruled in June that federal courts have no place deciding when a party in power has drawn maps that go too far to perpetuate that power. But most of the action so far has been in the majority of states where Republicans were in charge of drawing this decade's districts.
Fourteen states have now assigned the drawing of the next state legislative maps to independent commissions, while just nine will use such panels to set the congressional maps.
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In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.