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How Independent Redistricting Commissions Work


Another storyline that came out of the midterm elections is about voter frustration with the way districts are drawn. In most states, politicians draw the lines that determine where you vote, and that can lead to partisan gerrymandering, drawing the lines to favor a certain party.


Last week, voters in Michigan and Colorado approved measures that take redistricting out of the hands of politicians and put that task in the hands of independent commissions. To find out more about how these commissions work, we are speaking now with Michael Li. He's with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. Welcome.

MICHAEL LI: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So all these ballot measures we're seeing, is this a sign that there is growing interest in redistricting reform, in rolling back gerrymandering?

LI: Absolutely. There's been more energy around this issue than any time that I can remember. If you add Ohio, where a measure passed in May, there will have been five measures on the ballot, and four or five of them will have passed this year. And there's never been energy like that.

CHANG: And is this growing energy because the 2020 Census is coming up? Is that why?

LI: Well, I think the energy around this issue comes from the fact that people - both Democrats and Republicans and people who aren't affiliated with either party - increasingly understand that something is broken in our democracy and that the way that lines are drawn have a big part to do with that. And a few years ago, this issue resonated with nobody in polling. It didn't move voters one way or the other. And I think people have been really frustrated with the way that they were drawn this decade, and I think a lot of people are looking forward to new ways of doing it in the future.

CHANG: And some of those new ways are for states to redraw district lines by using what's called these independent commissions. Can you tell us how these commissions work?

LI: Well, they vary a bit, but the general idea is that you select people through a process. It's very akin to selecting a jury. There's a screening process. They're not picked by lawmakers. And then they get to work, and they draw lines, holding lots of public hearings. There are generally very strict transparency requirements around these, which is something that doesn't occur right now in where lawmakers draw the maps. And then they have to pass it on a bipartisan basis, and that itself ensures that the maps are going to be fair because you have to compromise it or else you fail.

CHANG: And there are some states that have been using independent commissions for years now. Do voters seem to be happy with the results?

LI: Absolutely. I mean, there had been versions of commissions in relatively small states, like Montana and Idaho, before. But California adopted a commission for the most recent map-drawing process, and it's a large, demographically complicated state. And the result is much more competition, much more compact districts, districts that do a better job of keeping communities together and that produce more wins by women, by people of color, by, you know, people who don't have access to big money. And a lot of that is due to the way that the maps are drawn, and they're drawn much more fairly.

CHANG: Well, a lot of those outcomes that you're citing would seem to favor Democrats. Are Republicans fighting some of these changes?

LI: Well, it's favored Democrats recently. But the maps are drawn - and you can measure this. If Republicans start to do better, if they figure out how to message to voters, if they start to figure out how to win votes from people of color or for younger voters, they will do better on these maps. And that's what democracy should look like. Your party should be able to compete for more seats by winning more votes.

CHANG: One question, though, that I've always had is how independent can these independent commissions ultimately be? I mean, they're still made up of human beings with partisan leanings. So politics is never entirely removed from the process, yeah?

LI: Politics is never completely out of the process. But the analogy I would use is - again, going back to a jury - you know, we don't expect jurors to come in as blank slates with no life experience and no wisdom. They bring that to the table. And so you saw a lot of team players on the California commission. I mean, they certainly were Democrats. They certainly were Republicans. But they didn't come in saying, I want to maximize my party's gains, or I have - I know exactly what I want to do here. And by and large, people are happy with the maps, and both Democrats and Republicans in California say, like, this worked.

CHANG: Michael Li is a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. Thank you very much.

LI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.