Effingham is director of federal reform for RepresentUs, a right-left anti-corruption group.
Yes, the For the People Act would prevent gerrymandering this cycle.
However, deadlines are fast approaching.
A recent column made the argument that, if passed, the For the People Act's redistricting reforms wouldn't take effect until 2030. The piece also chastised voting rights and pro-democracy groups for misleading their members and supporters about the bill's impact on this cycle.
The reason RepresentUs and our allies are not telling people this "fact" is because it's not true. The bill dedicates 28 pages exclusively to 2020 redistricting.
It's important that we clear this up because a deadline is fast approaching and the public has to be aware of the stakes. Aug. 16 is the Census Bureau deadline for delivering local-level population data to states — and the date on which gerrymandering can begin.
While there are minor differences in how the For the People Act deals with the 2020 redistricting cycle compared to future cycles, the guidelines are largely similar. In both cases, it bans partisan redistricting, enables independent redistricting commissions and requires a baseline amount of public input. More specifically, under the For the People Act's "criteria for redistricting," the bill says that fair districts will "not favor or disfavor one party or another." RepresentUs published a brief that goes into much more detail on the similarities and differences between how the bill would govern redistricting in the 2020 cycle and future cycles.
Certainly, there are legitimate and urgent concerns about timing. We believe that the For the People Act must be passed by Aug. 16 to have the best chance of curbing partisan gerrymandering this cycle. According to a RepresentUs analysis, 35 states are at high or extreme risk of partisan gerrymandering this cycle, including Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin. The window to act is closing.
There are many necessary redistricting reforms in the For the People Act, but we believe the nonpartisan redistricting commissions required in the bill should be in place before Aug. 16 to help ensure a fairer process. Other reforms, including the ban on partisan districts, should be in place before state maps are finalized.
In addition to timing, the other legitimate question is what redistricting reforms will end up passing Congress. The For the People Act was filibustered by Senate Republicans in late June, and senators are working on bringing up the bill again in some form. RepresentUs and allies are working hard to make sure that the bill's gerrymandering reforms stay intact, but there is some uncertainty about what would be in a final package.These concerns aside, there shouldn't be any confusion that the provisions as currently outlined in the For the People Act would reduce the risk of partisan gerrymandering this cycle. And we all should be saying that, loudly and clearly.
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Already, this redistricting cycle has been like no other in recent memory. A global pandemic and a fight to include a question about citizenship in the decennial census caused the Census Bureau to announce it will be unable to meet its statutory deadlines for delivering the data. Although a few legislatures have begun drafting and even passing maps, the delay means that most states will not begin redistricting until five months later than anticipated. Several states have already begun to have hearings, and will hopefully follow up with more after the pre-Sept. 30 data files release.
In addition, legislative and congressional redistricting will be conducted by citizen commissions in 11 states, up from seven in 2010. Citizen commissions are seen by many reformers as not only a means to greater public input and community representation, but also as a limit to gerrymandering. And the trend seems likely to continue: According to the Brennan Center, proposals to create redistricting commissions were the most common type of redistricting reform considered by legislatures in 2020, including 18 that specifically called for citizen commissions.
For those not directly engaged in the process, there is a third and critical difference in the process this cycle: widespread public access to nonpartisan data, tools and information necessary to engage meaningfully in the process.
Drawing legally compliant district maps requires a tremendous amount of data, which is often time consuming to collect and labor intensive to process. Legislators have staff on hand to collect and process this data, as well asprovide technical support and training. They also have taxpayer dollars to buy proprietary mapping software, allowing them to intricately manipulate district lines to produce friendly districts. Because the data and tools are difficult to acquire, the ability to suggest more legally compliant maps or analyze proposed maps for gerrymandering has been out of reach for all but the most well-resourced groups.
This time, however, individuals and organizations can turn to the nonpartisan Redistricting Data Hub, a one-stop shop for high-quality redistricting data. For instance, all states require compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The RDH website hosts validated precinct boundaries joined with election results, which are used for racially polarized voting analyses, an essential step in assessing VRA compliance. RDH also hosts American Community Survey and voter file data with racial and ethnic information, as well as population projections, that can be used to assess how the demographics of a district might change over time.
Numerous states also require redistricting to respect "communities of interest," a criterion that is generally viewed as a door to more equitable representation. These communities are often subjectively defined, but testimony in support of a community can benefit from quantitative evidence found in the ACS, voter file data and population projections.
But data will only get you halfway there — access to mapping software and the technical skill to use them are also necessary to draw and analyze maps.
Once again, this cycle is different, in that there are several high-quality redistricting tools available for free online, including Dave's Redistricting App, DistrictBuilder, Districtr, Representable and the QGIS Redistricting Plugin. RDH has partnered with these organizations to provide demonstrations on how to use their tools, and you can find recordings of these sessions on the RDH website. And anyone can send questions about redistricting data, mapping tools, and other aspects of the process to firstname.lastname@example.org; knowledgeable, nonpartisan and friendly staff will respond within one business day.
Only time will tell how effective these changes are in preventing gerrymandering. But there are clear reasons for hope this time around, as long as the public uses these tools to their advantage. If you spent the last 10 years bemoaning gerrymandering, now's your chance to make sure you don't spend the next decade doing the same. The data, tools and support you need to effectively participate and advocate for a fair and representative redistricting are all publicly available online for free from the Redistricting Data Hub. Use our resources and let's advocate for fair districts!
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Gorrell is an advocate for the deaf, a former Republican Party election statistician, and a longtime congressional aide. He has been advocating against partisan gerrymandering for four decades.
"It's always encouraging to see great people like Eric Holder fighting to end Republican gerrymandering." — Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, Aug. 2, 2019.
For the past year, Holder's National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors Association, the National Democratic Redistricting PAC, EMILY's List, America Votes and All On The Line have persuaded their supporters to write thousands of email messages, letters to the editor and opinion pieces claiming the creation of independent redistricting commissions in their states could end Republican gerrymandering by the end of 2022.
But that's just not true.
As Bryan H. Wildenthal wrote for the legal news site Jurist: "A fact shockingly ignored in most news coverage is that some key provisions on gerrymandering would not even take effect until a decade from now — after the 2030 census!"
And, as New York Times columnist Ezra Klein explained, "It would also ban partisan redistricting and force states to use independent commissions to draw congressional lines (although this would not, sadly, take effect until after the 2030 census)."
CNN's Chris Cillizza echoed that analysis when he wrote: "And, even if the legislation did make it through the Senate — and Biden signed it — the redistricting reforms wouldn't kick in until the 2030 Census. Which is a very good thing for Republicans."
Let us check the effective date in the Senate's version of the For the People Act. It states, "This subtitle and the amendments made by this subtitle shall apply with respect to redistricting carried out pursuant to the decennial census conducted during 2030 or any succeeding decennial census."
In an email to me, Wildenthal wrote, "The result will be that Republicans will gerrymander to their heart's content in Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia (where they have far more seats to play with), and leave Democrats in the dust. They will lock in control of the House for the next decade even though Democrats may well win the House popular vote (as they did in 2012)."
Interestingly, Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgreen of California has not yet reintroduced her redistricting reform bill in the current Congress session (for her ninth attempt since 2005). Each time it has been submitted, it has died in committee because it has lacked adequate support among leadership to advance. The public might not know that her last bill, the Redistricting Reform Act of 2019, is identical to the redistricting provisions of the House version of the For the People Act. The exception is the change of the effective date, replacing 2020 with 2030.
These Democratic-related organizations have not informed their supporters about the new change of the effective date.
Should all 50 states adopt independent redistricting commissions by the time of the 2022 elections? Definitely yes. Look at the Maryland example.
Maryland has two dueling redistricting commissions. In his executive order, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan established the Governor's Citizen Redistricting Commission. Meanwhile, the top Democratic leaders in the General Assembly launched the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission to draw new congressional and legislative district maps.
In his Duckpin blog, Brian Griffiths wrote, "While the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Commission is designed to help the people, the Legislative Redistricting Advisory Commission is designed to help politicians. The difference could not be more clear." He showed the credibility difference between the two:
- The governor's commission has three Democrats, three Republicans and three independents. None of the nine members are elected officials.
- The legislative commission has five Democrats and two Republicans. Six of the seven members are elected officials.
Notably, President Biden did not mention redistricting reform while delivering a major speech on voting rights in Philadelphia on Tuesday, but he must know about the effective date.
Oddly, President Barack Obama did not push the Lofgren bill during his first two years in the White House, when fellow Democrats controlled the House and Senate. At the time, it seemed his party would do well enough in the 2010 midterms to dominate redistricting for the decade now coming to an end.
It turned out the opposite way. A Republican wave that year (fueled partly by fundraising for the Republican State Leadership Committee's Redistricting Majority Project) resulted in all GOP state governments getting to draw almost half the 435 congressional districts the next year while all Democratic governments drew about 50. This action is one of Obama's most embarrassing moments.
Wildenthal wrote, "I could not agree more strongly that it was a tragically missed historic opportunity for Obama and the Democrats to enact lasting reform to ban gerrymandering in 2009-10. I suppose they stupidly assumed they would have the upper hand after the 2010 election. We know how that worked out."
I believe his one-page legislative proposal, the "Defend Elections and National Democracy (DEFEND) Act," could be an excellent solution. It would:
- Block all state restrictions on voting rights or other state laws affecting federal elections, enacted after Jan. 6, 2021, unless such laws were passed with bipartisan support.
- Invalidate all partisan and abusive state legislation (whether Republican-sponsored or Democratic-sponsored) attacking voting rights or threatening election integrity.
- Block any state map seeking to gerrymander districts for the U.S. House of Representatives on a partisan basis, and encourage other states to adopt independent or bipartisan commissions.
I ask advocates of redistricting reform to spread the word on the correct effective date and to consider the DEFEND Act.
President Biden on Tuesday decried the wave of GOP-backed voting restrictions as a "21st century Jim Crow assault" on American democracy. But "good government" groups want to see the president do more than give an impassioned speech.
While advocates were pleased by Biden's use of the bully pulpit to promote the need for broad election reforms, they said his address fell short of providing tangible steps forward. Biden once again called on Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, but did not acknowledge the fact that the Senate filibuster remains a huge impediment to either bill's enactment.
In the first seven months of his presidency, as well as during his presidential campaign, Biden has been an ardent supporter of voting rights, ending partisan gerrymandering and curbing dark money in politics. But Biden has done little to take these issues beyond talking points — something reform advocates have repeatedly implored him to do. Even during the primary campaign, Biden offered far less for specific reforms than his opponents proposed.
On Tuesday afternoon, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Biden spoke about how Americans turned out to vote in record numbers during last year's election, despite the raging coronavirus pandemic. But instead of celebrating that, the president said, there has been a continued attack on the election's integrity, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud.
"No other election has ever been held under such scrutiny and such high standards," Biden said. "The Big Lie is just that: a big lie."
"Time and again, we've weathered threats to the right to vote in free and fair elections. And each time, we found a way to overcome. And that's what we must do today," Biden continued. "As soon as Congress passes the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, I will sign it and let the whole world see it."
But the president neglected to mention how Congress will pass either bill with the filibuster still intact and Republican in unified opposition. Last month, Senate Democrats brought the For the People Act to the chamber floor for a procedural vote, but Republicans refused to debate the bill.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act has not yet been introduced in this Congress. On Wednesday, more than 160 companies — including Amazon, Google, Facebook and Starbucks — signed a letter to Congress urging them to introduce and pass the VRAA "because the freedom to vote is everyone's business."
Following Biden's speech on Tuesday, Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the president and Vice President Harris must do everything in their power to ensure the For the People Act and the VRAA become law, "even if that means supporting the change of archaic Senate rules to protect our freedom to vote."
"If the Senate can bypass the filibuster to send core elements of the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan to President Biden's desk, it ought to be able to do the same for anti-corruption legislation that protects the freedom to vote, breaks the grip of big money in politics, and ends gerrymandering," said Karen Hobart Flynn, president of Common Cause.
RepresentUs, a prominent democracy reform organization, noted that Biden also failed to mention an important deadline that is fast-approaching. On Aug. 16, the Census Bureau is expected to deliver redistricting data so states can start the mapmaking process. However, 35 states are at "high or extreme risk" of partisan gerrymandering, which the For the People Act bans.
Additionally, RepresentUs criticized Biden for only mentioning the sweeping reform package "sparingly" since his joint address to Congress in late April. The group's analysis of the Biden administration's public statements found just six presidential speeches or statements and four tweets from the @POTUS account that mention the For the People Act.
"Although the president promised to 'fight like heck with every tool at my disposal for its passage,' his public-facing advocacy for the bill is largely limited to a handful of tweets and short references in statements," RepresentUs noted in its analysis.
Other reform advocates want to see less talking and more direct action from the president.
"The president and his administration must move beyond speeches and begin actively lobbying Congress to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit campaign finance reform group.
Biden has flexed his presidential powers once already. In March, he issued an executive order promoting voting access. The directive asks federal agencies to evaluate how they can, within their purview of the law, encourage voter registration and participation.
But on Tuesday, Biden made no mention of this executive order, which Valencia Richardson, an attorney for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, found surprising. Her organization has sent letters to six federal agencies outlining recommendations and best practices for promoting voting access.
"By putting the onus almost entirely on Congress to defend voting rights, President Biden downplayed the more active role that the administration could play in facilitating access to voter registration and voting," she said.
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