Redistricting may not be a complicated topic for the average American, but for those at this NCSL Base Camp 2020 last week, it was well worth the climb to attend.
Ohio Senator Matt Huffman (R), North Carolina Senator Dan Blue (D) and Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the nonpartisan Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, kept attendees engaged with their insight and advice for this upcoming round of redistricting, which occurs only every 10 years, so has lasting effects on who runs the show for a decade.
Traditionally, state legislatures have been responsible for redistricting for state legislative and congressional districts. But in the last 50 years, 14 states have shifted primary responsibility for redrawing state legislative district lines from the legislature to a board or commission. Six states have an advisory commission to help the legislature with drawing district lines and five states have a backup commission to make the decision if the legislature can’t.
Huffman explained how he led the charge to change the process in Ohio after the 2010 census, when the subsequent map drawing became so contentious that he concluded: “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
He said he worked with his colleague, Senator Vern Sikes (D), in a bipartisan effort to change the process, and, in 2015, their plan was approved with more than 70% support. New legislatively drawn maps must now receive bipartisan support, or they last for only four years. “This offers a built-in incentive,” Huffman said. Who wants to redraw maps every few years and risk losing their district altogether?
Blue knows how it feels to be in the minority as well as the majority during this 10-year event. “Getting buy-in from the minority is key,” he said, adding that it's the most important thing to keep in mind, along with avoiding legal entanglements with racial and partisan gerrymandering.
Racial gerrymandering has been decided fairly clearly by the courts to be off-limits. But partisanship gerrymandering continues as if we still live in the Wild, Wild West world of map drawing, Blue said. Even the U.S. Supreme Court washed its hands of it and kicked responsibility for identifying it down to state courts.
Clarke rounded out the session by discussing the battles fought this census season over counting unauthorized immigrants and adapting census operations to the pandemic. “Like everything, the pandemic has turned the whole system on its head,” she said, including the census count.
She emphasized the importance of drawing fair maps, based on an accurate, 100% count of all people, with an emphasis on “all.”
“My hope is that states also might help to create some of that political will … to draw maps that are more fair and embrace principles that really lie at the heart of our democracy—making sure that all communities have an equal voice in our democracy or at least try to come close to it,” Clarke said.
Julie Lays is the editor of State Legislatures Magazine.
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