Discussions on gerrymandering often call for the creation of independent redistricting commissions to draw electoral maps. But in this episode of the Democracy Works podcast from the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, Christopher Fowler explains that plan is just part of a bigger solution to gerrymandering.
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The GOP-majority Texas Legislature approved new maps for Congress and the state Legislature this week, and the first lawsuit has already been filed — before any maps have been finalized.
Latino voting rights advocates filed the first federal lawsuit on Monday, claiming the districts drawn and approved by Texas lawmakers discriminate against Latinos by diluting their voting power and therefore violating the Voting Rights Act. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign the new maps into law in the coming days.
The lawsuit was filed by five registered Texas voters and nine Latino advocacy groups, including LULAC, Mi Familia Vota and Texas Hispanics Organized for Political Education. They are being represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which successfully challenged the state's maps during the previous redistricting cycle.
Over the last decade, Texas has gained 4 million new residents, earning the state two new congressional seats. Half of the newcomers are Hispanic and 95 percent of them are people of color, according to the Census Bureau.
However, the recently approved maps do not reflect this growing Hispanic voting bloc in Texas. The number of state House districts in which Latinos make up a majority of the eligible voters dropped from 33 to 30. The number of congressional districts in which Hispanics were in the majority was also reduced from eight to seven.
Instead, Republicans, who control the state's redistricting process, drew the maps so the two new congressional districts would be majority white. The lawsuit claims legislators used gerrymandering tactics like packing and cracking to diminish Latino voting power.
"Fair maps" advocates have also flagged Texas' redistricting plans as examples of partisan gerrymandering. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project and RepresentUs gave the state's maps for Congress and the state legislature failing grades for ensuring "significant Republican advantage." The groups also noted that the maps have non-compact districts, meaning there were more county splits than usual.
This the latest, and perhaps most high profile, redistricting lawsuit to be filed since the process kicked off following the 2020 census.
As states start to redraw their election maps for the new decade, redistricting experts have already flagged a state for extreme partisan gerrymandering.
The map for Ohio's House of Representatives gives significant advantage to Republicans, according to the Redistricting Report Card tool created by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and RepresentUs. The two good-government groups, which are collaborating to analyze state legislative and congressional maps as they are proposed and approved this year, did find an exemplar in Colorado.
Because the Ohio House map was a clear GOP gerrymander it was graded an F. Ohio's Senate map received a B because it similarly advantages Republicans, but to a lesser degree. The congressional district maps have not yet been finalized or graded.
"The Ohio Senate map scores higher because each Senate district is an aggregation of three house districts that appear to have been fine-tuned to produce a partisan advantage in the house maps. That effect is diluted when these districts are put together into one larger district," RepresentUs explained.
For state legislative maps, Ohio uses a seven-member commission composed of the governor, state auditor, secretary of state and one person appointed by each legislative leader. If at least two commissioners from each party vote in favor of the redistricting plans, then they will remain in effect for the entire decade. However, this year's state maps were passed on a party-line vote, so they will only be in use for four years.
In contrast, watchdogs highlight Colorado as a leading example for how to curb partisan gerrymandering. This redistricting cycle is the first in which an independent commission, approved by voters in 2018, is in charge of drawing new election maps.
While Colorado's eight congressional districts have not yet been finalized for this decade, the proposed plans (expected to be finalized by the end of the month) have all received A's from the Redistricting Report Card. The state legislative maps are also being drafted, but have not yet been analyzed for partisan fairness and competitiveness.
Colorado's proposed congressional districts so far have created no partisan advantage and kept Hispanic and Native American communities intact. RepresentUs and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project also commended the state redistricting commission for using public feedback to improve the maps.
"The vast majority of Americans despise gerrymandering and want the map-drawing process to be free from partisan influence. Clearly, Colorado passed that test and Ohio didn't," said RepresentUs CEO Josh Silver.
As more state maps are finalized, RepresentUs and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project will continue to analyze the proposed districts and flag instances of partisan gerrymandering.
After the For the People Act was blocked by a Republican filibuster in June, Senate Democrats began forging a new path forward for their voting and election reform priorities.
Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, along with six other co-sponsors, unveiled Tuesday their compromise legislation, dubbed the Freedom to Vote Act. This pared-down bill includes many provisions from the For the People Act, while also incorporating earlier proposals from Manchin, who was the sole Democrat opposed to S. 1, as the original bill is also known.
With Manchin on board, this new election reform package will likely garner support from all 50 Democrats. However, without at least 10 Republican votes or a change in Senate rules, the legislation will face the same fate as the For the People Act.
Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tasked Klobuchar and Manchin, as well as Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, Angus King of Maine, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Alex Padilla of California, Jon Tester of Montana and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, with workshopping election reform proposals and developing a compromise bill. (King is formally an independent but works alongside Democrats.)
At 592 pages, the Freedom to Vote Act is nearly 300-pages shorter than the For the People Act, but still includes many provisions that expand access to voter registration, bolster transparency around spending in elections and curb partisan gerrymandering.
One key addition is a set of guidelines for states that require voters to show identification when casting a ballot in person, which Manchin had proposed in June. A broad range of IDs would be accepted, including a driver's license, state or government-issued ID, tribal ID, passport, student ID, military ID, gun license, Medicare or Social Security card, birth certificate, voter registration card, hunting or fishing license, debit card, recent utility bill or another identifying document.
"The freedom to vote is fundamental to all of our freedoms," Klobuchar said. "Following the 2020 elections in which more Americans voted than ever before, we have seen unprecedented attacks on our democracy in states across the country. These attacks demand an immediate federal response."
The group of Senate Democrats behind the bill say it will establish national standards for election administration and voting rights, ensuring all Americans can cast a ballot in a safe and secure manner.
"As elected officials, we also have an obligation to restore peoples' faith in our democracy," Manchin said, "and I believe that the commonsense provisions in this bill — like flexible voter ID requirements — will do just that."
One of the biggest items excised from the original bill was the requirement that states establish independent commissions to handle redistricting. Those would be optional under this legislation.
What's in the Freedom to Vote Act
The new package has three sections: voter access and election administration, election integrity, and civic participation and empowerment.
The voter access and election administration provisions include:
- Setting minimum standards for states that require people to present identification to vote in person, including accepting a broad variety of ID cards and documents in hard copy and digital form.
- Enacting automatic voter registration in each state through motor vehicle agencies.
- Enacting online voter registration in each state.
- Ensuring all states offer same-day voter registration at a limited number of voting sites for the 2022 elections, and then all polling locations by the 2024 elections.
- Making Election Day a public holiday.
- Mandating states provide at least 15 days of early voting, including two weekends, for federal elections.
- Establishing minimum standards for mail voting and drop box access.
- Strengthening standards for voter roll maintenance.
- Requiring provisional ballots to count for all eligible races within a county, regardless of the precinct in which they were cast.
- Restoring, to people who have completed their sentences for felony convictions, the right to vote in federal elections.
- Expanding voter access for disabled individuals, Native Americans, military and civilian overseas voters, and other underserved communities.
The election integrity provisions include:
- Protecting nonpartisan state and local election officials from inappropriate partisan interference or control.
- Bolstering security around federal election records and election infrastructure.
- Requiring states to use voting systems with paper ballots that can be verified in post-election audits. (States would be given grants to purchase new equipment and make other cybersecurity improvements.)
- Tasking the Election Assistance Commission with recruiting and training election workers.
- Establishing cybersecurity standards for voting equipment vendors.
- Mandating federal campaigns disclose certain foreign contacts to prevent election interference.
The civic participation and empowerment provisions include:
- Requiring states to abide by specific rules for congressional redistricting to curb partisan gerrymandering. States would be able to choose how to develop their election maps, with an independent redistricting commission among the options.
- Mandating super PACs, political advocacy nonprofits and other organizations that spend money in elections disclose their donors. The transfer of money between groups to hide the source of funding would be banned. Also, online political advertising would be subject to the same "paid for by" disclosure requirements that apply to TV, radio and print ads.
- Establishing a fund for states to invest in election and democracy reforms. (The fund would be financed through "an additional assessment paid on federal fines, penalties and settlements for certain tax crimes and corporate malfeasance.")
- Improving the ability of the Federal Election Commission to oversee and enforce federal election law.
- Creating a "coordinated spender" category to prevent single-candidate super PACs from illegally operating as an extension of a political campaign.
How democracy reform advocates are reacting
Democracy reform advocates, who have been pushing for congressional action on electoral reform for years, are hopeful this revised legislation can finally cross the finish line.
Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, said the bill is "very strong" and "gives powerful new momentum to the fight to protect democracy."
Jana Morgan, director of the Declaration for American Democracy, called it "a transformative bill that will bring us closer to a democracy that is truly of, by and for the people." DFAD is a coalition of more than 230 advocacy organizations.
Given the wave of state laws tightening the rules for voter access and the redrawing of state and congressional election maps, reform advocates also emphasized the urgency of passing this federal legislation. They recognized, however, that the filibuster remains an impediment if Republicans do not get on board with these proposed reforms.
"If Republicans continue to stonewall desperately needed measures to protect our democracy, then Democrats must move immediately to adopt a workaround to the filibuster," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. "America can wait no longer. The stakes are too high. Whatever institutional interest there may be in preserving the filibuster must give way to the imperative of protecting, preserving and advancing our democracy."
The Democrats who run the Illinois Legislature didn't waste any time ramming new state House and Senate maps through the legislative process this week, despite criticism and pleas from community organizations for a more thorough and transparent process.
State lawmakers revealed new maps Monday to replace a series of maps that had already been passed prior to the release of updated census data. However, it was determined the new maps violated the "one person, one vote" principle, forcing a third set of maps to be offered the next day,. That final set of maps was approved hours later.
Democratic leaders argued that the maps accurately reflect the census data that was released in August. Republicans and other critics, however, called the maps a "sham" and accused the Democratic majority of putting partisanship ahead of better representation.
The overall redistricting process has been heavily criticized. Lawmakers rushed multiple hearings over six days ahead of the original map reveal on Monday. Then, after introducing revised maps on Tuesday that were drawn behind closed doors, legislative leaders held a single hearing half an hour later.
Witnesses who testified at Tuesday's hearing urged legislators to give the public time to weigh in on the maps before a vote was taken. The public, however, was not given that opportunity. Now, maps that critics say do not honor the diversity of Illinois' population are headed to Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker's desk.
"Drawing district maps in locked back rooms yet again, Illinois lawmakers underscored their utter disregard for the will of the people and for the bedrock democratic principles of open government by and for the people," said CHANGE Illinois Executive Director Madeleine Doubek. "Gov. Pritzker said he wanted maps that reflect the state's rich diversity. These maps fall far short of that request and should be rejected by him. Failing that, we hope the courts will force the correction of lawmakers' callous political mapping calculations."
CHANGE Illinois is a nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on fair maps in Illinois. In a press release, the group pointed out that the legislative maps reduce the number of districts with majority Black and majority Latino voting populations. Aviva Miriam Patt from the Decalogue Society of Lawyers also noted in testimony that the revised maps split up Jewish communities in Chicago and its northern suburbs and cracked majority Blacks suburbs south of the city.
"Twice in a matter of months, Illinoisans have seen their overwhelming pleas for independent and transparent mapmaking utterly ignored by those elected to represent them," said Doubek. "Their maps make a farce of democracy and their mapmaking process was a charade. Illinois lawmakers have effectively demonstrated the clear and compelling need to end gerrymandering once and for all."
Other organizations that called for greater accountability and transparency in the redistricting process included the Latino Policy Forum, Common Cause Illinois, Illinois Muslim Civic Coalition, the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations and Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.
If approved by Pritzker, the new maps will be used for the next decade. The Legislature has not yet introduced new congressional maps but that is expected to be an equally partisan process.
Pundits and journalists have expressed doubts about the future of the For the People Act since it was introduced, and continue to label it "dead" in article after article. The reality is that the landmark voting rights bill has never been closer to getting passed — but the window to do so is quickly closing.
Of course, we're well aware of the main hurdles in the way. It's true that not a single Republican senator supports the bill. And yes, because of that, we face the obstacle of the filibuster. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is laying the groundwork to bring along hesitant colleagues and break the logjam.
You see, a complicated game of chess is playing out in the Senate. In the wee hours of the night last week, Schumer introduced three pieces of legislation: the For the People Act, as well as a stand-alone anti-gerrymandering bill and a stand-alone dark money "disclosure" bill. Republican Ted Cruz immediately filibustered the bills. At 4:30 a.m., just before adjourning for August recess, Schumer declared, "Republicans have formed a total wall of opposition against progress on voting rights. That's what we have come to: total Republican intransigence."
Let's step back for a second. In the last two months, Republican senators on four occasions have blocked debate from starting on legislation to set common-sense baseline voting standards, end gerrymandering and get big money out of politics. These are issues that all have overwhelming bipartisan support in the country — particularly gerrymandering, which 89 percent of voters oppose.
Prior to the latest filibuster of the bills, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin tried to win Republican support for a compromise bill that set a national voter ID standard. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called that good-faith negotiation attempt "comic relief."
But Schumer is moving the pieces into place to pass the For the People Act, despite Republican opposition. He is forcing his Democratic colleagues to realize an unfortunate truth: Republicans in the Senate have shown us time and time again that there is no proposal — no matter how popular or how historically bipartisan — that they're willing to support.
By bringing voting rights to the floor again, Schumer sent a message before leaving town. If passing popular standalone pieces of legislation like the Redistricting Reform Act won't get 10 Republicans, if passing reasonable voting protections that includes a voter ID standard won't get 10 Republicans, Democrats in the Senate must come to terms with the reality that there is nothing of value in the democracy space that will get Republican support. So they must take the only alternative route forward: filibuster reform.
Manchin and others continue to voice concerns about ending the filibuster, but they must now see they have no other options. Democracy depends on Democratic senators figuring out how to end gridlock on voting rights and enact filibuster reform.
There is no time to waste. The Census Bureau delivered population data to states last week, kicking off the redistricting process that could see unprecedented gerrymandering aided by powerful supercomputers and the blessing of the Supreme Court. RepresentUs' Gerrymandering Threat Index shows that 35 states are at "extreme" or "high" risk of partisan gerrymandering. That's why we partnered with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project on a Redistricting Report Card to detect gerrymandering and grade each state's proposed maps. If the Senate doesn't pass federal anti-gerrymandering reform immediately when it reconvenes, we could be stuck with bad voting maps for the next decade.
With the Senate in recess, now is the time to call and write your senators and urge them to support the For the People Act. Because Schumer said that when the Senate comes back next month, the bill will be first on the agenda. Make no mistake: Democratic senators know how to move this bill forward reforming the filibuster. They know they have no other choice.
Since organizing the Voters Not Politicians 2018 ballot initiative that put citizens in charge of drawing Michigan's legislative maps, Fahey has been the founding executive director of The People, which is forming statewide networks to promote government accountability. She regularly interviews colleagues in the world of democracy reform for our Opinion section.
Amy Scott-Stoltz is the president of the League of Women Voters of South Dakota. Born and raised in Sioux Falls, Amy is a committed and deeply engaged community leader, whose strong civic spirit compelled her to lead the current campaign for redistricting reform in her state.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Fahey: How did you become involved with the League of Women Voters SD and this campaign, specifically?
Scott-Stoltz: My mom was a League of Women Voters member starting back in the '70s, so I've been around the organization since birth and grew up with a civic spirit. I officially joined the League when I had my son 18 years ago.
Nationally, the League is focusing on redistricting. I took a deep dive into redistricting in South Dakota, looking at previous gerrymandering and ways the process could be improved.
Fahey: How has gerrymandering impacted previous elections in South Dakota, and why is reform needed?
Scott-Stoltz: The lawsuit Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine alleged that the state legislature's 2001 map packed Native American voters into one district, limiting their electoral impact and violating the Voting Rights Act. The Native Americans won their court case, but there were no lawsuits stemming from the 2010 redistricting cycle — the spotlight had dwindled, while gerrymandering had gotten worse.
Over the past three decades, the number of registered Republicans in South Dakota has remained steady at around 49 percent, while the number of Republican state legislators has increased from 65 percent to 90 percent. Currently, 86 percent of our legislative districts have more Republicans than Democrats.
A question I often get is, 'Why wasn't this an issue earlier?' Gerrymandering has always been an issue, but the advent of advanced technology has made it easier to gerrymander down to the census block.
Fahey: Please explain the reform that Drawn Together SD is promoting. How would it change redistricting in your state?
Scott-Stoltz: Our petition is bringing forward an independent commission that allows citizens, not politicians, to create South Dakota's legislative maps. To ensure true bipartisanship, no more than three out of nine commissioners may be affiliated with the same political party, and each must have been continuously registered with their party for three years. During the three years before and after the redistricting cycle, commissioners cannot be appointed or elected to public office. In drawing maps, the commission cannot use voter registration data or other data that reveals voting trends — it must preserve communities of interest, and partisan gerrymandering is finally made illegal.
Fahey: Republican overrepresentation is the evidence of gerrymandering in South Dakota, but this is a nonpartisan petition. How do you pitch this reform to voters across the political spectrum?
Scott-Stoltz: The idea of free and fair elections is our focus, and it all starts with how the lines are drawn. Getting to the polls and voting is the second step. Democracy really does take precedence over partisanship for most people in the United States.
Fahey: How can people support your effort to end gerrymandering in South Dakota?
Scott-Stoltz: Our website has information on signing our petition and volunteer opportunities, as well as making a donation — it is very expensive to run a petition campaign. We can also be contacted via email at info@drawntogetherSD.com.
Fahey: How is the redistricting process playing out right now in South Dakota?
Scott-Stoltz: A legislative committee is working on redistricting, and it plans to approve its map in a special session on Nov. 8. The census data release was delayed from April to this month, so the timeline is compressed. The redistricting committee has 15 legislators and 13 are from the same party, so the opportunity for gerrymandering is there.
The committee will hold public hearings in October. About a month before that, the League will hold in-person and online meetings to educate voters on redistricting and ways they can get involved.
Fahey: What previous attempts have there been to pass redistricting reform in South Dakota?
Scott-Stoltz: A similar ballot question, which would have created an independent commission, appeared in 2016. It failed to pass, but still received 43 percent of the vote. In 2020, our coalition formed to support a resolution in the state legislature which would have established an independent redistricting commission. The motion failed in a committee with nine out of 11 members from the same party. We have not given up. Since starting our petition drive, our coalition has expanded. We have members across the state in rural and urban communities, including Native American communities.
Fahey: Beyond Bone Shirt v. Hazeltine, could you explain how South Dakota voting laws have impacted the Native American population?
Scott-Stoltz: The Native American community in South Dakota did not have full participation in state government until 1980. Before then, residents of unincorporated counties — mainly containing reservations — could not hold public office. As recently as 2012, the secretary of state removed early voting satellite offices from a reservation. Instead of having 46 days to vote early like the rest of the state, Native American residents had only 6 days to vote locally — some had to travel for hours to reach an early voting site over the preceding 40 days. In response, the Native American population successfully sued the state.
The poorest county in America is a Native American reservation in South Dakota. With so many other pressing needs, the Native American population in the state has historically struggled to focus on voting rights and fair representation. In recent years, they've become strong advocates for themselves and important partners of Drawn Together SD.
Fahey: What will it take for your proposed amendment to be implemented?
Scott-Stoltz: For our proposed amendment to appear on the 2022 ballot, our petition needs nearly 34,000 signatures by Nov. 8. It will take a huge push to get it through, and we could use all the help we can get.
Fahey: What has been the biggest obstacle of your campaign?
Scott-Stoltz: The biggest obstacles are the things we can't control, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and weather — we've had heat waves recently — that make it hard to get out in places where people gather. We have a good response when we are able to collect signatures, as most people are willing to sign.
Fahey: If you were speaking with a high school student or a new immigrant to the country, how would you describe what being an American means to you?
Scott-Stoltz: Being American is both a freedom and a responsibility. All of our freedoms come with a responsibility to not only fight to maintain them, but to make sure that we are fighting for the freedoms of others.
Data released by the Census Bureau on Thursday showed America's population is more diverse than ever. For the first time since 1790, the number of people in the country who identify as white declined.
The detailed look into the nation's population changes over the past decade will be key as states can now begin redrawing election maps for the 2020s. But due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, states face a compressed timeline to complete their redistricting plans.
Concerns about the accuracy of the census count also remain. Communities of color have historically been undercounted, but this cycle could see larger disparities due to Covid-19 and efforts by the Trump administration to change the census questionnaire in ways that might have intimidated respondents.
Here are five stories to catch you up on the latest redistricting developments.
To the casual observer, gerrymandering can be difficult to spot, especially with recent technological advancements. But two new tools make it much easier to uncover partisan map manipulation.
And it's no coincidence that "good government" groups are unveiling these free tools now. On Thursday, the Census Bureau will release the updated population data states need to start redrawing congressional and state legislative maps for the new decade.
RepresentUs and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project collaborated to produce the Redistricting Report Card. And the Campaign Legal Center relaunched PlanScore. Both tools will analyze each state's newly drawn election maps for partisan impact.
Because the entire process of collecting and processing census data has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, states are facing a compressed timeline for redistricting this year. The data being released this week normally comes out in the spring, and the final set of redistricting data won't be available until late September.
In most of the country, the two major parties remain in control of the mapmaking process. Republicans will have the advantage over redistricting in 21 states, while Democrats have it in nine. Another nine states have a divided government and the remaining 11 states have given mapmaking authority over to a redistricting commission.
Fair maps advocates hope to use these online tools to hold mapmakers, partisan or independent, accountable as well as raise public awareness about gerrymandering and the redistricting process.
The Redistricting Report Card uses an algorithm that generates one million potential maps for each state to provide a baseline of possibilities, both good and bad. Then, the tool will use these one million possibilities to compare and evaluate map proposals from state legislatures, redistricting commissions and even reform groups.
It will grade proposals based on competitiveness, geography and, most importantly, partisan fairness. Grades will be posted as state maps are produced later this year.
"It is critical that we deliver to citizens ways to evaluate and correct attempts to skew representation," said Sam Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and its extension, the Electoral Innovation Lab. "Our democracy depends on a transparent representation model that is responsive to citizens. We want citizens and map experts nationwide to use tools like this to reclaim their power in the democratic process."
In April, RepresentUs released a Gerrymandering Threat Index warning that 35 states are at extreme or high risk of gerrymandering this cycle. The Redistricting Report Card will confirm whether those states do end up manipulating maps for partisan advantage.
"Gerrymandering disenfranchises voters and makes it harder to hold politicians accountable. This important new grading tool will sound the alarm about gerrymandered maps around the country, empowering voters to demand their representatives draw fair maps," said RepresentUs CEO Josh Silver.
While the report card is a new tool, PlanScore was created in 2018 and has been updated and relaunched by the Campaign Legal Center.
As state redistricting plans progress, PlanScore will collect and analyze new maps to determine how severely they are skewed in favor of one major party over the other. The three main metrics for analysis are:
- Efficiency gap (the extent to which district lines crack and pack one party's voters more than the other).
- Partisan bias (the difference between each party's seat share and 50 percent in a hypothetically tied election).
- Mean-median difference (whether and how much a district's vote distribution is skewed in favor of one party over the other).
The website also contextualizes this year's redistricting process by allowing users to compare current and upcoming maps for Congress and the state legislature to historical plans dating back to the 1970s.
Additionally, policymakers and fair maps advocates can upload their own redistricting concepts to PlanScore, which will instantly evaluate them for partisan fairness.
PlanScore Casey Atkins, Campaign Legal Center
"The voting districts that will be finalized in the coming weeks will be cemented for the next 10 years," said Mark Gaber, director of redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center. "PlanScore.org empowers voters to hold map drawers accountable and demand fair maps during this critical map drawing year."
With redistricting season about to kick off and more states engaging everyday citizens in the process, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project staged its own effort to broaden the role of citizen mapmakers. This week, the group celebrated the winners of the Great American Map-Off.
The competition sought to raise awareness about partisan gerrymandering ahead of states redrawing election maps later this year, following the release of updated population data from the Census Bureau.
The contest challenged members of the public to create congressional maps for any of seven key states: Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. Participants used free online mapping tools to submit maps in one or all of the following categories: partisan fairness, stealth gerrymander, competition and communities of interest.
"In some cases, entrants had only rudimentary mapping experience, but had substantial familiarity with local communities, underscoring the importance of public engagement within the mapping process and any public input periods following the upcoming release of redistricting maps," said Hannah Wheelen, data and technology lead for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
After considering more than a hundred entries, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project chose the following seven winners.
Nathaniel Fischer of Durham, N.C., was named the overall winner for the map of his home state that skillfully incorporated communities of interest. As the first place winner, Fischer took home the grand prize: an iPad.
Peter Haywood, a recent high school graduate from New York City, was awarded the best communities of interest map for his "impressively compact map of New York state districts incorporating his detailed knowledge of regions and communities."
A student team taking Josina Dunkel's AP Human Geography course at Stuyvesant High School in New York City won the best stealth gerrymandering category for their map of Ohio. This category was designed to test how maps could be gerrymandered in a way that was not visible to casual observers. The students' map managed to achieve majority representation for a minority party, while still maintaining compactness and adhering to county boundaries.
Two winners were named for the best competitiveness category: Kenneth Kellett, a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida, and Silas Domy, who works as a research and development coordinator for the Elder Abuse Institute of Maine. Both winners created two maps of Florida each focused on competitiveness and incumbency.
Two winners were also named for the best partisan fairness category: Isak Dai, a first-year student at Georgetown University, and Dinos Gonatas, a Princeton alumnus who consults in the energy sector and works on redistricting algorithms in his free time. Dai created a map of Colorado and Gonatas designed one for Wisconsin.
In addition to these winners, 75 participants' maps were considered of high enough technical caliber to be admitted into the Princeton Gerrymandering Project's MapCorps. These new members will consult and design maps with the team at Princeton.
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.
Next week, the Census Bureau is expected to release the population data states need to begin the redistricting process. The final set of data will become available in late September — much later than usual due to delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
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.
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!
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.
The recent Supreme Court rulings on voting rights and election transparency have once again highlighted the enormous power the judicial branch has over the country's electoral process.
Last week, the court's conservative majority upheld a pair of voting laws that tightened the rules in Arizona. In a separate ruling, the justices struck down California's law requiring charitable nonprofits to privately disclose their top donors to the state attorney general. Both cases could have larger implications for the future of American democracy.
Throughout history, the Supreme Court has played an integral role in shaping how voters are represented, ballots are cast and elections are financed. Here are seven landmark cases from the last six decades:
Reynolds v. Sims (1964)
In 1961, a group of Alabama voters challenged the apportionment of the state Legislature, arguing it violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. At the time, Alabama required each county to have at least one representative and allowed as many senators as there were senatorial districts. This led to unequal representation due to large population discrepancies across the districts.
The Supreme Court ruled that legislative districts within a state must have substantially equal representation for all citizens. This ruling has ensured districts maintain even representation when redrawn each decade during redistricting.
Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
In an attempt to curb political corruption following the Watergate scandal, Congress established limits on election spending through the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act. This case challenged whether those restrictions violated the First Amendment.
In 1976, the Supreme Court arrived at two conclusions with this case, making a distinction between contributions and expenditures. First, the justices determined that a limit on how much an individual can donate to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment because it "served the government's interest in safeguarding the integrity of elections." However, the court also found that limits on expenditures by campaigns and candidates did violate the freedoms of speech and association because this practice does not necessarily enhance the potential for corruption in elections.
Also in this ruling, the court overturned FECA's disclosure requirement for independent expenditures made for the purpose of influencing federal elections. This established the two types of political advertising seen today: express advocacy and issue advocacy. Express advocacy ads require disclosure because they explicitly support or oppose a candidate. Issue advocacy ads, on the other hand, mention broad political topics, but not campaigns, and so disclosure is not required. However, there can be ambiguity between the two, leading to calls for more transparency of the wealthy special interests influencing elections.
Miller v. Johnson (1995)
Following the 1990 census, Georgia lawmakers redrew the state's election maps to create a third majority-Black district. However, the new district was so severely gerrymandered that it packed Atlanta's Black neighborhoods in with other Black communities 260 miles away along the Atlantic coast.
Voters in this distorted district challenged the map, arguing it was a racial gerrymander in violation with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that the district did constitute a racial gerrymander. In some instances, the court held, a reapportionment plan may be so irregular that it cannot be rationally understood as anything but an effort to racially segregate voters.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)
The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act barred electioneering communication — advertising run on broadcast, cable or satellite services and mentioning a candidate — within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary. Citizens United, a conservative advocacy nonprofit, challenged this rule after its movie criticizing then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was blocked by the Federal Election Commission for airing too close to an election.
The Supreme Court struck down this provision of BCRA, ruling that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts cannot be restricted under the First Amendment. However, the court upheld the requirement that electioneering communication be subject to disclaimers and disclosure of sponsors.
More than a decade after the ruling, Citizens United v. FEC is often labeled as the ultimate antagonist of the democracy reform movement. Its harshest critics use the case as shorthand for a campaign financing system that gives a lopsided political advantage to the wealthiest individuals, corporations and other entities. But proponents, mostly conservatives, still hail the ruling as a major victory for free speech and political expression.
Shelby County v. Holder (2013)
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, known as preclearance. Prior to this ruling, certain states and counties with histories of racial discrimination had to get prior federal approval of their proposed changes to voting procedures. But the court found that this constraint, while appropriate in the past, was no longer necessary and placed an unconstitutional burden on states.
Since then, voting rights advocates claim the lack of preclearance has allowed state lawmakers to significantly roll back voting access. But others argue what remains of the Voting Rights Act is enough to protect against discriminatory laws.
McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014)
The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act set a cap on the total dollars an individual could give to candidates, political parties and political action committees in a two-year election cycle. The law was intended to curb political corruption, but a decade after enactment, it was challenged for violating the First Amendment.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the aggregate limit failed to prevent corruption or meet the "rigorous" standard of review set by previous campaign finance cases, and therefore it was unconstitutional. There are still limits on how much an individual can give to a single candidate, party or committee, though.
This ruling opened up opportunities for wealthy donors to give to as many political entities as they want. It also led to the creation of joint fundraising committees — partnerships in which campaigns and party committees collect one large check from each donor and split the proceeds.
Rucho v. Common Cause (2019)
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that cases involving partisan gerrymandering were not justiciable because the issue falls outside the purview of federal courts. The case was brought to the court after North Carolina's maps were challenged for constituting an illegal partisan gerrymander.
This ruling was seen as a massive setback for anti-gerrymandering advocates who had hoped the high court would intervene in extreme gerrymandering cases, such as the one in North Carolina. Now, it will be left up to state courts to decide when gerrymandering goes too far.