Here’s the forecast for legislatures heading into redistricting: windy, stormy and more than a little bit heated.
But there are ways to lower the temperature, a panel of legislators told attendees at NCSL’s redistricting seminar in Salt Lake City in July.
One way: Share the power. That’s the course chosen by Oregon Democrats, who hold majorities in both the state House and Senate. They’ve done it before: In 2011, the House was split 30-30, so the parties co-chaired everything, said Representative Andrea Salinas (D), chair of the House Redistricting Committee.
We’re all holding hands, knowing that we have to have trust together, and trying to figure out how we will do this together. —Oregon Representative Andrea Salinas
They didn’t have to do that this time around, but House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) agreed in April to have co-chairs from both parties oversee a committee evenly split along party lines in exchange for an agreement from the minority leader to stop holding up the majority’s agenda.
Then the apportionment numbers came in, and Oregon gained another congressional seat.
“So obviously, the speaker’s move made headlines—‘How can you do this? You’re throwing away Democratic power!’” Salinas said, adding that after they got over the shock, Democrats realized they could make it work.
“We have been trying to build trust along the way, knowing we’re under this tight deadline without a lot of information,” she said. “So we’re all holding hands, knowing that we have to have trust together, and trying to figure out how we will do this together.”
Their goal: a fair map.
“Neither (party) wants this to go to the courts,” Salinas said. “We’ve been able to figure out where the differences are—and where our common ground is.”
Another way to avoid redistricting conflict: Have an overwhelming majority. That pretty much describes the state of Massachusetts, said Senator William Brownsberger (D), who counts 37 Democrats in his 40-member chamber.
“We’re not trying to get up any higher than that—why would we?” he said. “There’s a collegiality that’s developed through the years with Republicans.”
A mathematician determined that even though the state is 30% Republican, they are so widely scattered that it is impossible to draw a majority-Republican congressional district, Brownsberger said, adding, “So there’s really nothing to litigate.”
Striving for Transparency
Massachusetts Representative Michael Moran (D), who is on the House Redistricting Committee, said principles and data drive their process. In 2011, they worked hard to be transparent and to share information with advocacy groups. They supplied them with the software to make their own maps, which they could then submit for legislative consideration.
“We changed the dynamics of how the advocacy world viewed the process of redistricting in Massachusetts,” Moran said of 2011. “One of the keys to not getting sued was, we paid a significant amount of attention to areas where we thought we would get sued.”
Kentucky Representative Kevin Bratcher (R), who has been in the House for 25 years, has been through three rounds of redistricting—and he was in the minority party for all three.
It wasn’t pretty.
“I’ve been like a pinball in a pinball machine when it comes to redistricting,” Bratcher said. “Wherever they sent me, that’s where I went. I had no input. When you’re in the minority and you have no say whatsoever what your new district’s going to look like, you can get a little frustrated.”
Bratcher is a bit puzzled about why redistricting is suddenly such a hot topic. He recalled that after 12 hours of debate during one redistricting session in the ’90s, a colleague stood up and said, “Nobody cares about this issue outside these chamber walls. Let’s just get this over with.”
Fast forward to last year, and Bratcher recalls a group involved with the process saying, “Redistricting is the most important issue in this country right now.”
“So how did it go from ‘Nobody cares about it outside of these walls’ to ‘It’s the most important issue?’” Bratcher said. “That’s something everyone should ponder.”
How important is it to the public?
“I guess that remains to be seen,” he said. “When I was elected in ’96, most of the states were blue, and it wasn’t a big issue: Whatever the majority did, the minority just took it. Now, a few years ago, it became this is a big issue, once the states became more red.”
Republicans now hold supermajorities in both Kentucky chambers, but there have been glimmers of cooperation. A bipartisan measure expanded voting access in the state by allowing three days of no-excuse, early in-person voting—including a Saturday—before Election Day.
So even though it has been 100 years since Republicans had control of redistricting in Kentucky, Bratcher said he wants the process to be different this time around. And maybe it will be.
“For my part—what little part I play in it,” he said, “we’re not going to do what they did to us all those years.”
Lisa Ryckman is NCSL’s Associate Director of Communications.