There is little about American democracy that is more contentious or more vulnerable to abuse than drawing the districts that elect representatives at all levels of government. There is also little that is more important.
With that in mind, it is heartening to see a bipartisan move to take redrawing of Colorado’s congressional districts out of the Legislature’s hands. (Colorado already has a similar mechanism for state Legislature districts.) The proposal aims to put a initiative on the 2016 ballot, which would require collecting almost 100,000 signatures. If passed by the voters it would then establish a 12-member independent commission made up of equal numbers of registered Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. All meetings would be public and an eight-member supermajority would be needed to approve a district map. That could go a long way toward getting politics out of the process.
And it is good to see state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is involved. She is in good company along with former governors, Democrat Dick Lamm and Republican Bill Owens.
How districts are drawn can greatly influence the nature of the legislative body. There are any number of ways to craft districts to favor or disadvantage one group or another, but redistricting is at some level always about politics.
Redistricting occurs every 10 years following the census. Changes in population are noted and new lines are drawn so that each congressional district contains roughly the same number of residents. In the process, growing states gain seats, others lose them.
The shenanigans happen within states, where lines can be drawn to favor one party or another. Legislatures are inherently political, and any attempt at redistricting by elected lawmakers will reflect that.
That was evident in Colorado’s last redistricting effort following the 2010 census. Control of the state Legislature was split between Democrats and Republicans, which resulted in gridlock and forced the courts to decide.
That is all too typical. According to U.S. News & World Report there have been lawsuits challenging redistricting maps following the 2010 census in 38 states and the courts drew some or all of the maps in nine states. There were 37 such lawsuits following the 2000 redistricting.
There are a number of ideas to address redistricting. Some states, like Colorado, let their lawmakers do it. Others have politician commissions, advisory boards or backup commissions if the legislature fails. None eliminate lawsuits.
An independent commission, however, might come closest. California, Washington, Idaho and Arizona all have them. Their experience should be instructive.
As proposed, an independent commission could have another advantage. By requiring transparency and supermajorities, the plan addresses the fact that redistricting involves legitimate clashes of values.
The executive director of FairVote, an electoral reform nonprofit spelled out an example. As he told U.S. News, “If you create districts where racial minorities can win, you have safe seats. But if you create competitive districts, you may not get fair representation.”
Of course that turns on what “fair” means – and to whom. That kind of question is hard to answer definitively, but an open discussion in a public forum would be an improvement.
Redistricting can never be done to everyone’s satisfaction. But it can be done better. Much will depend on the final language of the measure, but this should be one to watch for 2016.