Elections in America: Expert Panel Discusses Need to Separate the Districting Process from Self-Interested Legislators


DSC_0063HLPR’s Spring 2014 Symposium on Elections in America, held on Saturday, April 5, began with a panel on electoral districting.  Districting is one of the most consequential aspects of elections—often deciding outcomes, ensuring perennial incumbency, and strengthening or weakening the political influence of particular communities—yet it is also one of the least transparent processes in our democracy.  In most states, legislators are free to draw boundaries to preserve their own job security, with little public scrutiny.  Our panel featured four speakers, Shira Center, Myrna Pérez, Micah Altman, and Angelo Ancheta, each of whom is an expert on districting in his or her own right, while also bringing a unique perspective on the topic.

Shira Center, Politics Editor for DC’s Roll Call and Resident Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, is an expert on congressional races and spearheaded Roll Call’s redistricting coverage.  After nearly a decade covering politics and campaigns across the country, she has developed comprehensive knowledge of the geography and demographics of congressional districts.  Ms. Center described the political consequences of redistricting, demonstrating its practical impact on Capitol Hill.  She shared her reporting about the “Five Ugliest Districts”—bizarre-looking, convoluted districts drawn carefully to include and exclude particular people.  Sometimes, Ms. Center noted, legislators’ districting requests could be as specific as ensuring that their aunt is in their district, or even a particularly symbolic flagpole.

Myrna Pérez is Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, where she works on voting rights, redistricting, voter registration, and ballot access.  Obama tapped Ms. Pérez to be an election assistance commissioner, to assist states to meet the requirements of the 2002 Help America Vote Act.  Ms. Pérez provided an excellent overview of the practical and legal challenges of districting, as well as the problems currently caused by gerrymandering.  She presented both the legal requirements and the ideal criteria for districting.  Under the “one-person-one-vote” rule established in Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Sims, constitutional law requires districts (within the same election system) to have equal population, though the standard is stricter for congressional districts than state or local districts.  The Voting Rights Act (VRA) protects against districts that discriminate by diluting minority voter strength.  Districts violate Section 2 of the VRA if they deny minority voters an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.  Section 5 of the VRA used to require preclearance of district lines (and other electoral changes) by the Department of Justice in covered jurisdictions, but the Supreme Court struck down the formula determining coverage in Shelby County v. Holder last year, leaving no jurisdictions subject to Section 5 preclearance.  Aside from these restrictions, districting is usually left to legislators’ discretion, and they must balance between a set of often competing criteria including contiguity, compactness, competitiveness, preserving internal political boundaries, and recognizing communities of interest.  Ms. Pérez noted that no one size fits all for a district, and that the visual simplicity or compactness of a district often will not maximize other criteria that we may value more highly.  She also discussed the problem of prison gerrymandering, which occurs because prisoners are counted in the census in the district in which they are imprisoned even though they typically cannot vote, and therefore the other voters in that district have more influence than voters in other districts.

Dr. Micah Altman, Director of Research and Head Scientist at the MIT Libraries’ Program on Information Science, presented an alternative to state politicians drawing district lines on their own.  Working with the Public Mapping Project, Dr. Altman has developed an open source districting application, DistrictBuilder.  DistrictBuilder allows members of the public to generate their own redistricting plans online, through easy-to-use online mapping tools.  Users can engage with the very technical process of districting as a visual mapping problem, by simply dragging district lines The application has some districting requirements, such as equipopulation, built in, and allows users to view shade maps to identify the presence or absence of other criteria.  DistrictBuilder has already been used to create 1000 districting plans, and these public-generated plans have typically satisfied the various criteria more successfully than legislative plans.  They have been less partisan, and have more accurately represented cohesive neighborhoods and communities.  Dr. Altman argued that the transparency of the DistrictBuilder process, and the alternatives to legislative districting plans it creates, help hold legislators accountable in the generally unaccountable districting process.

Our final presenter was Angelo Ancheta, clinical professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, Director of the University’s Katherine & George Alexander Community Law Center, and a member of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission.  The Citizens Redistricting Commission is another model for removing the districting process from self-interested legislators; Professor Ancheta published an article on the Commission in HLPR’s Volume 8.1.  Established by a 2008 California ballot initiative, the Commission is an independent (not non-partisan) body charged with drawing new districting maps after the 2010 census for state offices and (after another ballot initiative in 2010) congressional districts.  Drawing from his personal experience, Professor Ancheta explained the structure, selection process, and map drawing process of the commission.  The Commission has 14 members—five from the party with the most registered voters (Democrats), four from the party with the second-most registered voters (Republicans), and four from neither major party; this structure provides the minority party (Republicans) with much more influence on the districting process than the traditional process, which is dominated by the state legislature’s majority party.  These members were selected through an intensive, yearlong process, which included competitive applications, opportunity for the legislature to exercise peremptory strikes of a certain number of candidates, and a random selection out of the group of finalists.  Professor Ancheta noted that this process resulted in a group that is diverse along ethnic and gender lines, although it does skew towards higher income and greater education; every Commission member has an advanced degree, and many are either lawyers or urban planners.

Once selected, the Commission members spent seven months producing the new districting map.  In addition to complying with the population equality and VRA requirements, the Commission considered contiguity, geographic integrity (minimizing the division of cities, counties, neighborhoods, and communities of interest), compactness, and nesting (preserving whole sub-districts, such as including two whole Assembly districts within each Senate district.  Importantly, the Commission could not consider incumbency, potential candidates for a district, or the demographics of party affiliation, sharply distinguishing the Commission’s redistricting process from that of most state legislatures’ redistricting processes.  Professor Ancheta said that drafting an initial map was a relatively easy process; the more challenging (and expensive) process was ensuring public input and transparency by allowing for extensive public comment before issuing the final map.  The Commission solicited and considered input from 2,700 speakers and 20,000 submitted comments.  Professor Ancheta stressed that this process was expensive, requiring advertisements in a variety of media to inform the public about the rather technical process of redistricting and about their opportunity to provide input.  Generally, Professor Ancheta said that the public seemed to care most about preserving the unity (and therefore voting power) of their communities.  This concern about preserving community had a dark side: some people sought to identify their communities in an exclusionary manner, asking the Commission to draw the lines to cut out nearby neighborhoods or groups considered undesirable.

Following their presentations, the panelists discussed a number of questions, including which of the many possible criteria for redistricting should be prioritized.  Ms. Pérez noted that many of the criteria (e.g., compactness and contiguity) are really proxies for identifying communities of interest, because we care that communities can exercise group political choice, and that elected officials can represent groups with cohesive interests.  However, this interest in preserving community representation rubs up against an interest in competitiveness, as the more cohesive an election might be, the less competitive an election will be in that district (at least between opposing ideologies in general elections—choosing individual candidates in primaries may still be competitive in districts that are safe for one party).  Generally, the panelists seemed to prioritize community representation over inter-party competitiveness; the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, for example, did not take competitiveness into account, although other independent districting commissions, such as Arizona’s, do consider competitiveness.

Though the panelists did not come to a consensus on which districting criteria should be prioritized, they did agree that the legislative control of redistricting in most states leads to a whole host of problems: partisanship, self-interested incumbency, lack of transparency, and lack of public participation.  The panelists presented different solutions to these districting pitfalls—from technological solutions such as DistrictBuilder to solutions legislated through direct democracy like California’s Commission—but they were each directed at achieving a separation of self-interested legislators from the process.  Dr. Altman noted that the United Kingdom and Canada have each taken steps to separate the self-interest from the districting process that U.S. states can look to as potential examples.  Increasing transparency, panelists agreed, would not only improve the substantive results of the districting process, but would also increase the process’s legitimacy.  At a time of especially low public faith in government, such legitimacy is particularly important, and would encourage greater public participation in elections and engagement with government.


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