At this time in a normal redistricting year, states would already be drawing the lines for the next decade's election maps. But delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have upended many states' timelines.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal public policy institute at New York University Law School, released a 27-page report Thursday providing a state-by-state assessment of how these delays could impact the redistricting process.
While the delays were necessary, the report notes that as of mid-April many states had yet to update their redistricting deadlines to account for a more compressed timeline. If adjustments aren't made, courts may need to step in and create temporary maps for upcoming elections.
The Census Bureau has said it expects to release apportionment counts by the end of April, untabulated redistricting data by mid-August and finally full population and demographic data by the end of September — months after the typical delivery dates.
These delays will most significantly impact New Jersey and Virginia, which hold legislative elections in odd-numbered years and the new redistricting maps will not be ready before the primaries in June or even the general elections in November.
Last year, New Jersey adopted a constitutional amendment to keep its current districts through this year's elections and draw new ones ahead of the 2023 elections. Virginia is likely to follow a similar plan.
While the upcoming statewide elections aren't a factor for the majority of the country, many states are facing strict constitutional or statutory redistricting deadlines. Twenty-two states have fixed dates for redistricting, meaning they will need to adjust their schedules to accommodate for later data delivery.
Thirteen other states have slightly more flexibility because their redistricting deadlines are tied to the reporting or publication of census data. This means these states' deadlines will automatically adjust to the later release date. However, the 13 states may need to call special legislative sessions to complete the redistricting process or make other election adjustments.
Five states have redistricting deadlines set for early next year, and the Brennan Center anticipates the data delays having little to no impact on those states' mapmaking timelines.
Eleven states have no set deadlines for redistricting, but may still need to consider election adjustments or schedule special sessions to complete redistricting in a timely manner.
In addition to census-related obligations, 10 states have requirements to hold public hearings or comment periods during the redistricting process that will also need to be factored into any schedule adjustments.
"If states do not make the adjustments necessary to complete redistricting in a timely fashion, courts will then need to step in and draw temporary maps to ensure that legally compliant districts are in place for upcoming elections — a power they have used in the past," the report notes.
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In a state like New Mexico — with single-party control of government and no independent redistricting commission — gerrymandering is almost a foregone conclusion. But a newly passed bill aims to curb partisan manipulation of election maps in the Land of Enchantment.
In the early hours of Saturday, the last day of New Mexico's legislative session, lawmakers gave final approval to an advisory redistricting commission. Although the measure is not as potent as reform advocates wanted, it could open the door for more comprehensive changes later on.
States are awaiting the final, delayed numbers from the 2020 census so they can begin the redistricting process in time for the next round of elections. Twenty-one states will have Republicans controlling the process, while nine, including New Mexico, will have Democrats in charge. The remaining 20 states either have a divided government or some type of fully independent redistricting commission.
Pieces of several competing redistricting measures were merged together at the last minute as Democrats and Republicans worked out a compromise bill, which passed with near unanimous agreement. The measure creates a seven-member commission that will draft election maps for the Legislature to consider and amend before sending to the governor for final approval.
When the legislative session began in January, reform advocates had hoped to pry redistricting matters out of lawmakers' hands completely and hand it over to a truly independent commission. Earlier versions of the measure would have barred lawmakers from making amendments to the commission's proposed election maps.
That effort was shot down, however, because some lawmakers claimed preventing their amendments would violate the state constitution. As a result, a more diluted version of the redistricting measure that allows legislators to make changes ultimately moved forward.
While the end result was not everything redistricting reform advocates wanted, they are celebrating the parts of the bill that will make the process more fair and transparent.
"The passage of SB 304 is just the beginning of the end. We have to remain vigilant throughout the whole process to assure that we deliver fair district maps that will make New Mexico proud," said Dick Mason, project manager for Fair Districts for New Mexico.
At the very least, New Mexicans wanted to avoid another disastrous and expensive redistricting process like the one a decade ago. In 2010, the Legislature (controlled by Democrats) and GOP Gov. Susana Martinez couldn't come to an agreement on election maps, so the issue had to be settled in federal court — costing taxpayers $7 million in legal fees.
Now, with a Democratic governor and Legislature, this partisan disagreement is not as much of a concern, and the inaugural redistricting commission should help keep map disputes away from the courts.
Additionally, the approved legislation sets far more rigorous standards for election maps than was previously allowed. Most importantly, it limits the use of partisan data — such as voting history and party registration information — that makes maps less competitive and more favorable to incumbents.
The measure also explicitly states that the boundaries of Native American tribal lands must be recognized during the process. Historically, gerrymandering has taken a severe toll on Native Americans, who make up 11 percent of New Mexico's total population.
To bolster transparency around a process that in the past took place mostly behind closed doors, the redistricting commission must hold at least six meetings that are accessible online and allow for public participation. Map proposals must also be made available for public comment.
Ed Chavez, co-chair of the state's Redistricting Task Force and retired chief justice of the state Supreme Court, called the bill "groundbreaking."
"This will be the first time that a citizen group will drive the process instead of lawmakers. The public's participation will help ensure that, in the long-term, voters have a fair and equal opportunity to select representatives of their choice," he said.
The bill now goes to Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is expected to sign it. Once enacted, the state has until July 1 to form the commission.
The majority and minority leadership in the state House and Senate will appoint four of the seven members on the redistricting commission. The State Ethics Commission will select two more members, who cannot be registered Republicans or Democrats, and the chairperson, who must be a retired state Supreme Court justice or appeals court judge.
New Mexico's commission will then work to send map proposals to the Legislature by the end of October. Commissioners will draft three plans for the state's three congressional districts, the state House, the state Senate and the Public Education Commission. The Legislature will then enter a special session to consider the maps and vote on which ones to send to Lujan Grisham for final approval and adoption.
While New Mexico's commission is not the gold standard, it does closely resemble panels used in other blue states like Maine and Rhode Island. In those states, the redistricting commission guides the process, but allows lawmakers to make modifications. Reform advocates prefer commissions that are more independent and authoritative, such as the versions used in California or Michigan.
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Nevada will remain a state where politicians get to draw the election boundaries they run in. Advocates for turning the mapmaking over to an independent panel have conceded defeat.
Fair Maps Nevada announced Tuesday it was able to collect only 12,000 of the 98,000 signatures required to get their proposal on the November ballot, giving up a week ahead of the deadline. The group said it was stymied by the social distancing and safety protocols mandated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Assigning independent commissions to draw congressional and legislative district lines, instead of the state legislators themselves, is widely regarded as the best way to combat partisan gerrymandering. This year's election is effectively the last chance for states to make the switch in time for the maps being drawn for the next decade.
Fair Maps Nevada sued in May in search of relief from some of the petition requirements given the public health crisis. Last month, a federal judge granted the group a six-week extension, until next Wednesday, but denied its bid to gather signatures electronically.
"This is not the end of our efforts," the group said in its concession announcement, which promised to lay the groundwork for a successful referendum in two years, in plenty of time for the 2031 redistricting. "We will build a database of 'Pledge to Sign' supporters who will be ready to sign a new petition when we refile our redistricting reform ballot question.
Over the next 15 months, Fair Maps Nevada aims to reach 200,000 people who promise to sign its new petition at the end of next year. The group will also host monthly forums on anti-gerrymandering efforts.
Because of delays in the census thanks to the coronavirus, a special session of the solidly Democratic state Legislature will probably be convened in the fall of 2021 to draw the 63 legislative and four House districts for the rest of the decade. Fair Maps vowed that its supporters will flood Carson City "as an observer corps to ensure our new redistricting maps are fair and free from gerrymandering."
Fourteen states are sure to use independent commissions to draw state legislative districts next year, and eight will do so for congressional districts.Virginia will join this group if voters approve a measure on the November ballot. On the other hand, Missouri voters will decide whether to undo a redistricting initiative enacted two years ago. Efforts to get commission measures on the ballot are still alive in Arkansas, North Dakota and Oregon.
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In keeping with social distancing mandates, crusaders against partisan gerrymandering in Oregon have settled on a new old-fashioned way to recruit allies: Send a letter, by snail mail.
With the coronavirus pandemic ruling out traditional in-person canvassing across the country, many grassroots democracy efforts have gone silent — some after failing to get permission to obtain electronic signatures for their ballot measures.
Redistricting reformers in Oregon aren't going down the online route. Instead they are mailing copies of their ballot proposal, which would turn legislative mapmaking over to an independent redistricting commission, to half a million residential addresses in search of handwritten endorsements.
Time is of the essence. Political maps generally get drawn once every decade, after the census provides detailed population figures, so the reliably Democratic majorities in the Oregon Legislature will claim the job for themselves next year unless voters decide otherwise in November. And the measure won't be on the ballot unless 149,000 people sign and return the forms in the next three weeks.
The League of Women Voters and People Not Politicians are behind the flooding of the Postal Service in the Oregon campaign. Their mailing, which includes a postage-paid return envelope, is going to 500,000 households identified as having more than one registered voter.
Voters can also download the petition on the People Not Politicians' website or they can ask the group for a version in the mail if it doesn't show up soon.
The measure would establish a commission of four Democrats, four Republicans and four people unaffiliated with a major party. It would draw the district lines for the state House and Senate and set the boundaries of congressional districts — six of them, probably, up from five because of the state's population growth during the 2010s.
Oregon is one of a handful of states where advocates for taking mapmaking away from its beneficiaries are still campaigning. The group pushing for creation of a commission in newly blue Nevada was recently given more time to collect signatures to get on the ballot. But the effort in reliably red Arkansas has been hobbled since a federal judge refused to allow e-signatures on petitions.
Virginia is the only state that for sure will have a referendum in November on creation of an independent commission, while Missourians will vote on whether to largely undo a redistricting reform initiative they approved two years ago.
At the moment, 14 states will use independent commissions to draw the next decade's legislative districts, and eight of those will also take over congressional cartography.
Massachusetts and Michigan are the only states that have so far permitted electronic signatures for ballot measures in light of Covid-19. At least two dozen citizen democracy efforts, including four related to democracy reform, have been suspended due to the pandemic.
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