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Redistricting Commissions Can Help Ensure an Ethical and Transparent Process

The 2020 census count is now complete, and while states around the country wait for the data results, soon it will be time to complete a process that comes around once in a decade: redistricting. Redistricting is done differently in every state, but no matter who ultimately draws the maps, they should do so transparently with public input.  

After reapportionment, the process the federal government uses to determine how many House seats each state gets based on the population count from the census, redistricting happens. We define redistricting as ‘the process of redrawing the electoral districts within each state.’ How this is completed and who draws the lines varies by state. The process is completed by either the state legislature or a redistricting commission.  

Redistricting Commissions 

Only a handful of states use redistricting commissions. Redistricting commissions are statutory or constitutional bodies who are responsible for carrying out the map drawing process and/or overseeing the process for congressional and state district maps. A redistricting commission can be made up of an independent group, voters, and/or state legislators based on the type of commission.  

There are four main types of redistricting commissions:

  1. Independent redistricting commissions
  2. Bi-partisan commissions
  3. Advisory commissions
  4. Backup commissions

The capacity in which these commissions are involved  varies. Independent redistricting commissions and bi-partisan redistricting commissions allow voter residents of the state to be directly involved in the map drawing process. Arizona, California, Colorado, and Michigan all use independent redistricting commissions to complete the redistricting process for congressional and state districts. Bi-partisan commissions often include voters and legislators from the Democrat and Republican parties. The state of Virginia voted to implement a bipartisan commission in the 2020 Election.  

In states with advisory commissions, the power of redistricting remains in the hands of the legislature, but the commission is allowed to submit proposed redistricting plans that are sometimes implemented. Colorado, Iowa, Maine, and Vermont use advisory commissions for their congressional and/or state redistricting process. Backup commissions are used in some states when the legislature is unable to reach an agreement on the redistricting plan. Only a small group of states use this type of commission. Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas use backup commissions for state districts. Indiana and Ohio use this type of commission for congressional redistricting and Connecticut uses backup commission for both congressional and state districts. 

State Legislators and the Importance of Public Input 

 There are 33 states where redistricting is handled without a commission, but instead only by state legislators. This leaves more space for political bias in the map drawing process. When maps are drawn with the special interests of political parties in mind and without public input, gerrymandering occurs. Gerrymandering is the intentional manipulation of the redistricting process by the people in political power to produce district maps that keep themselves in power and protect special interest. The most popular forms of gerrymandering are partisan and racial gerrymandering. When public input is excluded from the map drawing process, states and local jurisdictions end up with maps that do not serve and sometimes split communities into different districts in the interest of politicians or lobbyists. In a recent event hosted by the Campaign Legal Center, How to Ensure That Redistricting is Fair, Open, and Accessible, LWV Senior Director of Mission Impact, Jeanette Senecal, stressed the importance of having public input. 
 

Redistricting impacts every issue we care about. It impacts our lives in every way

In her remarks, she strongly emphasized that people should identify who is leading redistricting in their state. “Redistricting impacts every issue we care about. It impacts our lives in every way,” Senecal said. She encourages everyone to identify their community’s needs and find out how they can have a voice in the redistricting process in their state. Having citizen input in the map drawing process is the way to ensure that fair and equitable maps are drawn.  

Even in states where citizens are involved in the map drawing process, it's crucial to set ethical standards to eliminate the possibility of manipulating the redistricting process for private or political gains. To do this, states must create ethical rules that include transparency, accountability, and a standard of conduct for commissioners and politicians. In addition to creating ethical standards for commissioners, states must hold public hearings and forums where the public has an opportunity to give input on the process.  

The League’s Work 

We recently partnered with the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) to produce a redistricting transparency report: Designing a Transparent and Ethical Redistricting Process: A Guide to Ensuring that the Redistricting Process is Fair, Open, and Accessible. Our findings serve as a blueprint for the leaders who will make decisions about our maps, and include recommendations for how to ensure redistricting is done ethically and equitably. 

Based on our joint findings and experience, the League and CLC recommends the following for implementing redistricting this year: 

  • Commissioners and Staff Are Subject to State Ethics Rules/Ethics Commissions.  
  • Commissioners and Staff Are Subject to Conflict of Interest Exclusions.  
  • Commissioners and Staff Should Have a Cooling-Off Period  
  • Commissioners and Staff Should Be Banned from Soliciting Gifts.  
  • Employers Should Be Prohibited from Retaliating Against Commissioners.  
  • The Redistricting Process Should Include a Minimal Number of Meetings or Public Hearings Throughout the State.  
  • The Data Used in the Redistricting Process Should Be Made Publicly Available in Easily Accessible Formats.  
  • All Draft Maps and Reports Should Be Released on a Publicly- Accessible Website.  
  • The Redistricting Process Should Be Subject to State Open Meetings/ FOIA Rules.  
  • The Redistricting Process Should Have a Mandatory Comment Period for Proposed Maps.  
  • Commissioners Must Be Impartial.  
  • States Should Establish Removal Procedures for Misconduct. 

As the 2021 redistricting cycle approaches, it's important to reiterate the need for transparency and ethics to set a standard for fair redistricting practices in every state. Fair maps will eliminate so-called ‘safe seats’ by making all politicians accountable to their constituents. In 2019 the League launched People Powered Fair MapsTM with the hopes of implementing fairer maps in 2021 than we saw ten years ago. In year two of our campaign, we have a strong push to educate the general public about redistricting process, with the hopes of empowering them to get involved.  

To create more equitable maps, we recommend that states prioritize transparency and implement ethics rules to protect the integrity of commissions and hold politicians accountable for acting in the interest of the people. Read our report to learn more about our recommendations for states to use to ensure an ethical and transparent redistricting process, with public input.  

Read our full report.