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From sea to sea, extracting the politics from redistricting proves hard to do

By Tom Baxter

By the time the General Assembly convenes in a couple of weeks, legislatures around the country will be fully engaged in the struggle between turf protection and political overreach that we call redistricting. What we can tell from what’s been going on elsewhere is that even when states change the rules to depoliticize the process of drawing political maps, it’s proving very hard to do.

Florida voters, for instance, gave landslide approval in 2010 to a constitutional amendment banning any form of partisan gerrymandering. The Republican-majority Florida legislature paid light regard to the people’s mandate and got sued for disregarding the amendment. The state ended up riding out the last decade with a court-drawn map.

If this has made Florida lawmakers more sensitive to the voice of the public, it’s hard to see. In advance of this year’s redistricting session, legislative leaders announced they are dropping the “roadshows”: the statewide hearings which are a feature of the redistricting process in most states, including Georgia. Instead, concerned citizens can now post comments and map proposals on a website, although the legislators haven’t made any firm commitment to actually look at it. In essence, voter participation in the process has been reduced to the equivalent of a Facebook post.

Iowa, considered a pioneer in redistricting reform, has had a system in place for 40 years in which an independent commission draws the maps and sends them to the legislature for approval. That has worked so far, but the legislature has the power to reject the commission’s work, and if it does so twice, the legislature gets to take a turn at drawing the map, so long as it does so within the general guidelines of the state’s law. The Republican-majority state Senate has rejected the commission’s first map, and meets again later this week to consider a second. The grand experiment in nonpartisan map drawing is hanging by a thread.

According to Politico,  several of the states which have turned the redistricting process over to independent commissions have struggled in the current partisan climate. In Colorado, the commission approved a new congressional map within minutes of their deadline after a six-hour Zoom meeting in which several of the commissioners were reduced, understandably, to tears.

Elsewhere, in the states which haven’t even tried to do anything about it, the heavily politicized process is proceeding as it always has.

Four states, Oregon, Maine, Nebraska and Indiana, have finished their entire redistricting process, and West Virginia is very close to a conclusion. It has been widely predicted that Republicans will pick up several congressional seats because they control the redistricting process in several states, including Georgia. But you can’t prove that by this first batch.

West Virginia will stay solidly Republican, but it’s losing a congressional seat. The party balance remains about the same in Maine, Nebraska and Indiana, and Democrats are likely to pick up a new district in Oregon.

The walkout by Oregon Republicans in that state’s recent redistricting session didn’t get the national attention given Texas Democrats in their walkout opposing the new Texas voting law, but it did have an impact. Democrats had the advantage, but they backed off a map that would have given them a 5-1 edge in House seats for one that gives them a 4-1 advantage with one tossup seat. In this game, that’s a major concession.

In Illinois, Democrats have crafted a map which gives them a 14-3 advantage, only to face blow-back from the national party, which floated a replacement map which pushed the advantage to 15-2.

These efforts by Democrats to push their margins up where they have the advantage will soon be surpassed by Republicans in the states, including Texas, Florida and Georgia, which they control. Neither party is above twisting districts into bizarre shape in order to give themselves an advantage, which is why the efforts to reform the process have largely fallen short.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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