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Supreme Court Punts on Redistricting Reform, Now Up To Voters

The Supreme Court is not going to overturn this year any political district boundary maps based solely on partisan unfairness. It’s not entirely shocking that the Court decided to avoid the thorniest issue of partisan gerrymandering. But it does mean that redistricting reform will need to come from the voters and their representatives directly, as recommended by the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform in 2014.

In its rulings yesterday in Benisek and Gill, the Court found ways to punt on the merits of the cases. Either the challenge was not timely—as in the Maryland Benisek case—or the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the statewide map in the Wisconsin Gill case. Both cases involved plaintiffs who argued that mapmakers’ purely partisan considerations made it impossible for voters to elect candidates who represent their political beliefs by drawing the craziest and most inequitable distract boundaries.

If the Court will not confront directly the partisan gerrymandering concerns that clearly tilt maps in inefficient ways purely for partisan political gain that in no way improve the representativeness of maps, there are options for reform-minded citizens to pursue.

BPC’s Commission on Political Reform made dozens of recommendations about Congress, the electoral process, and public service to improve governing during a period of hyperpolarization. The first four in the report are to improve the redistricting process:

  • States should adopt redistricting commissions that have the bipartisan support of the legislature and the electorate.
  • States should use neutral line-drawers in their redistricting processes.
  • States should move to a more open process for redistricting.
    • Private individuals and groups should have access to technological redistricting tools, such as sophisticated mapmaking software, which would allow them to more easily participate in the process.
    • States should publicly release initial redistricting plans with sufficient time for public comment.
    • States should implement contests by which private individuals or groups submit redistricting plans to encourage citizen engagement and to ensure that the line-drawers are informed about as many public opinions as possible.
  • States should adopt some forms of neutral geographic factors that limit the ability of mapmakers to draw districts that are strangely shaped.

The focus of the Commission’s recommendations on redistricting is that in our system, it is imperative that both parties have a voice in drawing political boundaries. While acknowledging that drawing these lines will always have a political component, it is possible to develop a fair and transparent system that includes the voters. We endorsed bipartisan commissions, an open process, and an emphasis on geographic cohesion that would lead to maps more readily acceptable to all voters.

And our recommendations have borne fruit. Shortly after the release of the Commission’s report in 2014, BPC began work in Ohio on electoral reform issues including voter registration, provisional voting, and especially redistricting.

Our work helped to lead the Ohio legislature toward a bipartisan plan that reformed how the state draws lines for state legislative districts, an action that was ratified by referendum in 2015. In 2018, the state made similar reforms that expand the fairer process to federal congressional districts. The reforms enshrine a role for the minority party where none had previously existed, and the plans passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

It has taken a long time to become this polarized and it’s going to take proactive, deliberate steps to move the needle back in the positive direction. The Commission’s recommendation to legislators and reformers is that both parties must seize opportunities like bipartisan redistricting reform to make the playing field a little fairer no matter who controls the levers of power. The public demands it.

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