What Is It?
Gerrymandering is so last season – in a few states, anyway. A small but growing number of states have done away with the backroom dealing and handed their redistricting process over to independent redistricting commissions.
In many states, the state legislature draws maps that decide where Congressional and state legislative districts are. While there’s no perfect way to draw these maps, some states do a fairer job than others. (Learn more about redistricting here.)
Independent commissions, though, aren’t part of a state legislature and they rarely include elected officials. In fact, even legislative staffers and lobbyists are usually barred from participating. The idea is to let an independent group of people draw district maps, rather than politicians. While governors and state party leaders sometimes have a say in who sits on these commissions, ordinary citizens may be able to join too. Those citizens are either nominated by commission members themselves or selected at random from an eligible pool of applicants.
Independent commissions reflect efforts by citizens, and even politicians, to end gerrymandering by taking state legislatures out of the process of drawing district lines. In some states, citizens got behind a public ballot initiative to create an independent commission. In others, independent commissions have been around for decades and were created by the state legislature.
Why It Matters to You
The way we draw maps of Congressional districts impacts who wins elections in those districts. In the past, these maps have often been drawn to give an advantage to one political party or another. That process is called gerrymandering and it can have all kinds of effects, like:
- Electing lots of people from one party to Congress, even when a majority of ballots were cast for the other party.
- Giving people of color a smaller or greater voice in elections.
- Protecting elected officials who are running for re-election.
- Creating districts that are “safe” for one party or another so that there’s never a tough election.
- Creating districts with confusing shapes.
Because partisan elected officials – Republicans or Democrats – draw the district lines in many states, the maps reflect what politicians want, and not necessarily what’s most fair. Supporters of independent redistricting commissions say that maps can be fairer if politicians aren’t in charge of drawing them.
How to Make an Impact
All independent commissions are required to hold open meetings and ask for input from the public. You can also send questions or comments online.
In several states, citizens can apply to join their state’s independent redistricting commission. Find out if you have this opportunity where you live.
In a few cases, your state legislature needs to approve maps drawn by an independent commission. Tell your state representatives whether you want them to support the independent commission’s map or offer up some changes.
Thumbs Up (Or Down)
In most states, the governor and state legislature play a role in selecting members of independent redistricting commissions. Do those folks like to appoint political insiders or are they committed to bringing new voices into the mix? Find out by calling, writing, or meeting with your state legislators and governor’s office then vote on it.
Write It Up
What if your state doesn’t have an independent redistricting commission? You might think your legislators do a fine job of drawing maps, and that’s great! If not, get the conversation started by writing an op-ed.
On the Ground
People like you are having an impact across the country every day. Here are a few times people got involved with their independent redistricting commissions:
In 2018, Utah residents passed a ballot measure establishing an independent redistricting commission, but the legislature reduced its power. The commission members were selected in February 2021.
A large majority of Michigan voters passed an amendment to the state constitution creating an independent redistricting commission, which has final authority for drawing district maps and is made up entirely of citizens. Michigan residents had the opportunity to give their feedback to the state’s Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission at public hearings around the state.
A citizens’ group criticized New Mexico’s independent commission for its lack of diversity. Fair Districts for New Mexico said that the commission didn’t have enough representation from different cultural groups and geographic areas of the state.
Colorado’s independent redistricting commission offered residents a chance to submit comments online during its public comments phase.
Independent commissions are even becoming a force at the local level. In California, an independent commission of citizens is responsible for drawing Santa Barbara county supervisor district lines.