A lawsuit filed this week over Illinois' new legislative district lines is a preview of what's sure to be a litigious and tense second half of the year for mapmakers.
While Illinois has made more progress than most states, the redistricting process in the Prairie State is far from over. Full census data has not yet been released due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, many states are facing impossible redistricting deadlines — some of them constitutionally mandated. If adjustments aren't made soon, courts will have to step in and draw temporary maps for upcoming elections.
Late last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation to establish new lines for the legislative districts in Illinois, a process the state Constitution requires to be completed by the end of this month. (The state still needs to draw new congressional maps.) Because Democrats have a 73-45 majority in the House and a 41-18 majority in the Senate, they were able to quickly draw districts and get Pritzker's approval without any input from Republicans.
A few days after the new maps were finalized, the state's top Republican officials, House Minority Leader Jim Durkin and Senate Minority Leader Dan McConchie, filed a federal lawsuit. They argue the redistricting plan approved by Democrats was inaccurate, "arbitrary" and discriminatory toward minority voters.
By forgoing the official Census Bureau counts in favor of population estimates, "the Plan ensures that historically undercounted minority communities will continue to be underrepresented and lose their right to an equal vote in the legislature," the lawsuit states.
The GOP leaders want a judge to declare the redistricting plan unconstitutional and to require the Legislature to establish a bipartisan commission to draw new maps.
Redistricting has historically been a heavily litigated issue due to partisan disputes like this. But there will likely be even more challenges this time around thanks to the Supreme Court's recent landmark decision. In 2019, the five conservative justices ruled that determining whether there is a constitutional limit to partisan gerrymandering fell outside the purview of federal judges. As a result, many election maps are expected to be battled out in state courts this year.
The added time constraints this year won't help matters either. If states fail to meet certain mapmaking deadlines, the line-drawing will be left to the courts. The Census Bureau intends to begin releasing the data that states need to kick off the redistricting process on Aug. 16. Then the final set of data will be made available at the end of September — much later than a typical redistricting year.
The Census Bureau released its first set of data at the end of April, providing population estimates for congressional apportionment. Due to population growth, Texas gained two House seats, and another five states gained one seat each: Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon. Seven states saw population declines resulting in the loss of one House seat each: California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The remaining states did not see a change in their number of seats, but all states with more than one district can redraw the lines.
While Illinois opted to use the population estimates already available to draw its legislative maps, most states will have to wait until more detailed data is released later this year. A delayed start could conflict with statutory deadlines set by state constitutions.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy institute at New York University Law School, released a report in April analyzing how census delays could impact states' redistricting plans. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project also created a tool to track how the delays are affecting states and where urgent intervention is needed most.
Hawaii and Michigan, two states with redistricting commissions, are among the most severe cases identified by both the Brennan Center and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project because they have fixed dates for redistricting.
Hawaii's constitution states that its redistricting commission has 150 days from its first meeting — which this year was April 13 — to finalize election maps. However, that deadline will be impossible to meet given the data delays. State lawmakers have asked the attorney general to petition the Hawaii Supreme Court, requesting forgiveness for missed deadlines.
Similarly, Michigan's inaugural independent redistricting commission and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have asked the state Supreme Court to extend the deadline by which election maps need to be finalized.
Most states have relatively flexible redistricting timelines, though, because either the dates are tied to the release of census data, the deadlines are in 2022 or they have no set deadlines. However, these states will still most likely need to hold special sessions to finalize election maps in a timely manner.
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- Report: How census delays may impact redistricting timelines - The ... ›
Johnson is executive director of Election Reformers Network, a nonprofit founded by international election specialists to promote electoral improvements in the United States.
Absent a remarkable change of heart from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, the For the People Act seems headed for defeat. Democratic congressional leaders insist on binding the bill's many elements as one package, but they should now shift focus to the individual components with at least some chance of becoming law.
Doing so will require Democrats to back away from battling the much-discussed restrictive election legislation in Georgia and other states. This will be a hard step to take, but some perspective can help.
In 2018, before some of the voting options opposed by Republicans even existed in some states, more than three-quarters of local election officials told pollsters that voting and registration had gotten easier during their tenures. Last year brought further, significant expansion of voting options. The Republican restrictions on some of these options are blatantly partisan, and a galling reminder of Donald Trump's continued influence. But such restrictions do not entail, as E.J. Dione claimed in a Washington Post op-ed Sunday, that "the voting rights of millions hang by a thread."
Yes, state-level advocates should fight these restrictions in court and keep them in the eyes of voters, who may come to punish Republicans for their anti-minority behavior, as Californians did over anti-immigrant legislation a generation ago. And it may well turn out that the greatest harm of these bills lies not in their voter restriction provisions, but in the dangerous expansion of legislative control over election administration, a problem the For the People Act (also known as HR 1 in the House, and S 1 in the Senate) does not address.
In the Senate, the focus should shift to pieces of S 1 with more broad-based support and the potential for significant impact on our democracy. Chief among these is the bill's ban on partisan gerrymandering for congressional elections.
Gerrymandering is theft by another name, skewing representation in Congress away from popular preference. A 2017 Brennan Center for Justice report estimated that Republicans won 16 or 17 more seats in the 115th Congresses than they would have if a politically neutral redistricting process had been in place.
Democrats of course also gerrymander, and the party used that tactic to grab seats when it controlled more state legislatures (turning Ronald Reagan into an ardent advocate of reform). Both parties will seek maximum advantage in the maps to be drawn this fall, and biased districting will be much more difficult to counter in federal courts than in prior decades. Even blue states that have implemented nonbinding reforms, like New York, will likely succumb to the political need to maximize political advantage.
But the harm of partisan gerrymandering goes deeper. In safe gerrymandered districts, political competition shifts from the general election to the primaries, with a their much smaller, unrepresentative and more ideological voter base, making the extremes of both parties( and the fear of being "primaried") a dominant concern for members of the House of Representatives.
Revealingly, the 138 Republican House members who voted on Jan. 6 to oppose the Electoral College votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania come from significantly less competitive districts on average than their less rebellious peers (based on data from the Cook Partisan Voter Index). Several "rebel" Republicans had themselves entered Congress via a primary challenge against a Republican incumbent.
In this context, redistricting reform could be presented as Congress' response to the attempted coup of Jan. 6, a framing that could help with the critical issue of Republican support. Seven Republicans followed the Jan. 6 attack by voting to impeach Donald Trump. Rep. Liz Cheney's ouster from the leadership last week may have opened three more to the value of reform to slow the advancing Marjorie Taylor Green wing of their party.
Redistricting reform could gain support among business organizations for the same reason. A state chamber of commerce CEO told me gerrymandering is becoming a priority concern among chambers because "it elects the crazies."
Republican voters understand the core unfairness of insiders drawing their own districts. Recent polling on provisions of the For the People Act showed 59 percent support from Republicans . In 2018, 74 percent of counties Trump won in 2016 by 25 points or more backed anti-gerrymandering ballot initiatives in Michigan, Ohio, Colorado and Missouri.
Other elements of S 1 Senate Democrats could prioritize include campaign finance disclosure (with 80 percent support among Republicans) and a new provision protecting election officials from threats and harassment. These elements could combine with anti-gerrymandering or be presented in separate bills, which could at least force an up-or-down vote on these popular issues.
But anti-gerrymandering should be the lodestar. Relative to other democracies our system allows people with partisan interests extraordinary control over election rulemaking and administration. Party-led state legislatures are micromanaging election rules, and partisan elected election officials have at times posed serious threats to fairness (for example, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in 2000). Congressional action on redistricting reform would be a huge win, perhaps second only to the voting rights act, and a major step toward less partisanship at the core of our electoral ecosystem.
- Experts identify the worst examples of gerrymandering - The Fulcrum ›
- How multimember districts could end partisan gerrymandering - The ... ›
- The human cost of the partisan gerrymandering decision - The ... ›
- Report: 35 states at high risk of partisan gerrymandering - The Fulcrum ›
Calling all amateur mapmakers: This contest is for you.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project launched the Great American Map-Off on Saturday, challenging the public to draw congressional maps for seven key states: Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.
The goal is to raise awareness about partisan gerrymandering and the redistricting process as states prepare to redraw their congressional and legislative maps later this year following the release of updated population data from the Census Bureau.
Members of the public can use free online mapping tools through Dave's Redistricting to create their own plans. Participants can submit maps in one or all of the following categories: partisan fairness, stealth gerrymander, competition and communities of interest.
"This contest is designed to bring voters closer to redistricting by illustrating how accessible mapping tools have become, allowing the public to have a stronger voice in the redistricting process later this year," said Hannah Wheelen of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
The competition will run through June 15, and the winners will be announced in mid-July. The winner will receive an iPad. Others will be selected to receive Princeton Gerrymandering Project merchandise, such as T-shirts, hats or masks. Winners may also be invited to join the group's Mapping Corps to consult and draw maps with team members.
Of the seven states highlighted in the competition, Colorado is the only one that will use an independent redistricting commission to redraw its maps this year.
Republicans will be in control of the mapmaking process in Florida and North Carolina. (North Carolina's Democratic governor does not have the power to veto maps.)
Although New York has an advisory commission to propose redistricting maps, the Democratic-majority Legislature can make changes if it first vetoes two drafts. Democrats will also have the advantage over redistricting in Illinois.
The GOP-majority Legislature in Ohio must pass a plan with bipartisan support. If it fails to do so, a commission consisting of the governor, secretary of state, state auditor and four appointees will take over.
If Wisconsin's Democratic governor and GOP-led Legislature fail to strike a bipartisan agreement, the state's maps will likely be drawn by the courts.
- Expressing your anger at gerrymandering? There's a font for that ... ›
- In most states, the redistricting rules remain the same - The Fulcrum ›
- Experts identify the worst examples of gerrymandering - The Fulcrum ›
It's been a busy week for democracy reformers, with the For the People Act appearing to die in the Senate, Republicans threatening to break ranks, and Rep. Liz Cheney losing her leadership post despite her conservative credentials.
But there was so much more. Here's a sampling of stories you may have missed.
What we know about the high, broad turnout in the 2020 election (The Washington Post)
And for a little fun: Ranked Voting in NYC (The New Yorker)
- Will 2021 be defined by voting rights and electoral reform? - The ... ›
- Redistricting lawsuits seek to get ahead of partisan fights - The ... ›
- Biden taps voting rights advocate Kristen Clarke for senior DOJ role ›
- Two bills to make the next election fair - The Fulcrum ›
- Liz Cheney, Margaret Chase Smith and protecting democracy - The Fulcrum ›
- Kristen Clarke assumes the role Lani Guinier was denied - The Fulcrum ›