Independent Redistricting: A Primer
Many thanks to our intern, Megan Funderburk, for researching and writing this post.
This is our first post in what will be an ongoing series about the issues in our legislative agenda. We’re starting with Independent Redistricting because it’s the most pressing - the census is next year and then redistricting will occur the year after that.
The United States Constitution mandates that a census be taken every 10 years. States then must begin the process of redrawing both the congressional, state, and municipal districts. This process will begin again after the next census in 2020. District lines group different sets of voters in different ways. This process of redistricting is necessary to accurately reflect population changes and the community represented within the lines. District lines should attempt to keep together “communities of interest,” which can be things like people who hold similar beliefs, eat at the same places, and walk their dogs at the same park. The way district lines are drawn and how voters are grouped together powerfully impacts the representatives that are elected and what policies they will fight for.
Who is in charge of this important process?
Each state decides for themselves, often outlined in their state constitution, but most states put this responsibility solely in the hands of the legislature. Twenty two states use a separate commission to help with the process or to take over the process entirely. Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, and Washington have commissions that take over the redistricting process entirely using an independent commission. These commissions are made up of individuals who are not themselves a part of the state legislature. For these states, the legislature may have a part in choosing the members of the commission but won’t have a hand in drawing the lines themselves.
Why do some states feel the need to remove legislature from the process, either partially or completely?
When the legislature is in charge of redrawing the districts in which they run for office, it leaves the opportunity to manipulate the lines to keep incumbents in power or to dilute the voice of their opposition. When one party controls the legislature, that party then has the ability to serve their own interests by redrawing the lines in their favor. Representatives can then, essentially, choose their own voters. This is called partisan gerrymandering. This can be done by drawing lines to exclude potential opposition or by packing multiple voters of a party into one district or diluting the voters across multiple districts.
What does this mean for Oklahoma?
Oklahoma law allows the party in power to draw the district lines. With the coming 2020 census, we have to ask ourselves if this is our best option? Is there a better alternative to draw state lines to best represent the people?
Although there are criticisms for every redistricting process, there are many advocates for the independent commission. An independent commission is currently used by six states with multiple other states moving in that direction. If created well, an independent commission creates a third party that can mitigate the issues that come with the ability of incumbent legislators to draw lines to keep themselves in power. Independent commissions may be the best way to reduce the drawing of lines motivated by self-interest.
The above images are examples of four Oklahoma legislative districts - two House, two Senate, and one of each from each party - that, at least at a glance, appear to be gerrymandered. We’re not saying they necessarily are, but they do serve as a good example of why we need to pay attention to redistricting and push for an independent commission to handle it. The screenshots were taken from the OAEC Digital Legislative Guide app - a free & handy resource for anyone interested in Oklahoma politics.
Redistricting is complicated. There’s no doubt about it. The redrawing of district lines is a long, tedious process that is tough for whomever is in charge, but it’s also necessary. Our democracy relies on our voices being heard and heard equally. But it’s easy to understand that a change is necessary. Leaving the redistricting process in the hands of the very people who stand to directly benefit just doesn’t make sense. Independent commissions provide a realistic alternative that allows for transparency, accountability, and removes heavy and direct partisan involvement.
The Brennan Center for Justice provides a great resource about redistricting that attempts to make all the complicated details manageable.