Series of essays on democracy.IN MOST STATES, REDISTRICTING, the process by which electoral district boundaries are drawn, is an overtly partisan exercise controlled by state legislatures. Politicians from the party in power draw the lines that determine congressional and legislative districts every 10 years, after each census. Often they adhere to a brutal partisan calculus that privileges maintaining political power rather than reflecting the will of voters—in other words, legislators routinely engage in partisan gerrymandering.

Extreme gerrymanders should concern anyone who wants government to reflect the will of the people. It makes it difficult to remove a political party from power in a state legislature even when a majority of voters select an alternative.

Benjamin Schneer.

“Increased competitiveness tends to produce greater turnover between the parties from year to year and fewer uncontested elections. Put simply, voters are more likely to face meaningful choices at the ballot box in competitive elections.”

Benjamin Schneer

Following a 2019 Supreme Court decision, Rucho v. Common Cause, prospects for addressing partisan gerrymandering at the federal level have all but disappeared for the foreseeable future. But several state-level solutions still exist. One of these is for more states to create independent redistricting commissions, which take the authority for drawing electoral lines from politicians and hand it over to multipartisan citizen volunteers who do not hold public office. These commissions are designed to be insulated from politicians, whose primary interest is often to ensure their own reelection.

The United States will enter a new redistricting cycle after the 2020 census, providing an opportunity to study the performance of independent redistricting commissions from the previous cycle, in 2011. In a recent policy memo, I and coauthors examined the effects of commission-based redistricting by focusing on the experience of Arizona, a state with a five-member independent commission. We found that independent redistricting can yield several advantages, including more public participation in—and satisfaction with—the process, increased competitiveness, and greater fairness. For example, survey respondents in states with independent commissions are more likely than voters in states where legislatures draw the districts to say that they view their state’s process as “fair.” This is owing in part to the outreach conducted in such states. For example, in Arizona the commission went on a listening tour and hosted public hearings, provided time for public comment at their meetings when drawing district lines, and sought public feedback in other ways.

Commissions certainly increased competition in Arizona, where 24 out of 30 legislative districts became more competitive after redistricting. Only three congressional districts (out of a total of nine post-redistricting) became less competitive. And the three most competitive congressional districts in the state joined the most competitive in the nation. Increased competitiveness tends to produce greater turnover between the parties from year to year and fewer uncontested elections. Put simply, voters are more likely to face meaningful choices at the ballot box in competitive elections. While other positive effects of competitiveness, such as higher turnout, are less clear, most political scientists think that competitive elections are a net win for voters.

Finally, although it takes many years of election data to reach a firm conclusion, the preliminary evidence for greater fairness in Arizona is encouraging: It has ranked near the top among states in achieving a proportional translation of votes into seats over the past several elections, even as statewide support for the Republican and Democratic parties has shifted back and forth.

Given this track record, it should be no surprise that many other states have taken steps to implement commission-based redistricting. Such proposals may outrage state legislators who want to hold on to political power. But as long as voters continue to care about democratic principles—such as an electoral system that gives legislators a reason to be responsive—we can expect commission-based redistricting to garner attention and perhaps even legal challenges to its constitutionality from those who stand to lose from changes to the current system. Whatever the outcome in the long run, commission-based systems have demonstrated that feasible alternatives to legislative-based redistricting not only exist but can meaningfully improve the democratic performance of a state’s electoral system.

Benjamin Schneer is an assistant professor of public policy. His research is in American politics and focuses primarily on political representation. This essay draws on his coauthored paper, “The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission: One State’s Model for Reform.”

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