HKS MPP’18 James Pagano explores the future of redistricting reform.
By James Pagano
Election reform is experiencing an uncharacteristically long moment in the national consciousness. Electoral security, voting rights, and alleged voter fraud have all received consistent attention since November 2016.
Yet, of all the issue areas at a crossroads, redistricting reform may be the most likely to finally see forward progress.
A combination of events over the past few years has brought renewed attention to gerrymandering. Republicans took extreme measures to insulate themselves from political competition following the 2010 wave election. The Supreme Court defanged the voting rights act and is now considering how to rule in Gil v Whitford, a court case that could redefine the limits of gerrymandering. The proliferation of new technologies and mapping software has opened up a previously highly esoteric process while also allowing surgical precision in selecting voters.
These changes, along with the quickly approaching decennial census, have led to a proliferation of organizations looking to “fix” one of America’s longest-held democratic deficiencies. Although the field of interested organizations has grown, whether a consensus approach or framework can emerge, or will succeed, remains far from clear. Nonetheless, redistricting reform is receiving renewed attention, and the next few years will determine whether the second-half of this decade could represent the biggest shift in representation since the “Reapportionment Revolution” of the 1960s. This excitement and momentum was on full display at the Harvard Ash Center’s Conference on Redistricting Reform this past November.
In fairness, many groups have been focused on fixing the American redistricting process for a long-time, but their agendas are receiving new attention. Groups like Common Cause, FairVote, and the Brennan Center, which have advocated nonpartisan reform efforts for many years, now phase a citizenry much more aware and interested in curbing the excesses of gerrymandering.
“Things are moving,” according to Dan Vicuña, National Redistricting Manager at Common Cause. Efforts aimed at curbing partisan gerrymandering are remerging after halting progress over the past 20 years. Arizona and California adopted independent commissions to draw districts 17 and 9 years ago respectively. No state has done the same since. Now, in states from Michigan to Utah and South Dakota to Ohio, legislators and citizens are driving efforts to remake redistricting into a more independent and less partisan exercise.
Common Cause has championed and supported these legislative efforts and citizen initiatives, but Vicuña also stressed the importance of public education and taking a long-view. Gerrymandering, after all, has been around since at least 1812. Common Cause’s work at passing “fundamental reforms” to the redistricting process will likely continue long after 2020, regardless of the outcome of Gil v Whitford or the efforts in a handful of states. Nonetheless, notching another victory in the battle for reform would represent a tremendous victory for advocacy groups.
The emergence of partisan groups focused on redistricting is a newer development. The Republican Party’s now famous Project REDMAP helped secure control of the redistricting process in states across the country in 2010. Democrats, it is now accepted, were caught flat-footed.
With the establishment of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC), the party has signaled its commitment to correct past errors. Indeed, Democrats now seem willing, and even excited, about contesting state-level races.
Governors and state legislators (in almost all states) draw political maps. The NDRC has adopted a multi-faceted strategy with a focus on bringing attention and resources to elections that will impact redistricting in 2020. They poured millions of dollars into the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and will make similar efforts in highly-gerrymandered states like Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Theirs is primarily an electoral strategy.
NDRC Executive Director Kelly Ward has helped shape this strategy on the premise of split control, “if one party controls the entire process,” she says, “that’s not good for democracy.” The group has signaled some interest in the kinds of fundamental reforms championed by groups like Common Cause, but what remains to be seen from young partisan groups is whether they have the long-term focus required to reform democratic structures. While creating a mixed government in Virginia for the 2020 redistricting process will likely produce fairer maps, it won’t ensure that the maps remain fair in 2030.
It’s also valid to point out that Project REDMAP did nothing to improve or depoliticize the redistricting process once it secured Republicans control of the process. The inherent short-term interest of political parties means groups like the NDRC will have to actively guard against becoming short-sighted should their preferred candidates gain power. Leaving Virginia, now that Ralph Northam is governor, won’t provide lasting improvements to the state’s democracy beyond the next redistricting cycle.
How these groups work together and whether long-term reforms can take root remains to be seen. While partisan and non-partisan groups alike agree that changes must be made, the extent to which they agree over how to do that remains an open question. Both sets of groups, for example, have very different perspectives on the role and appropriateness of independent commissions, such as those that exist in California and Arizona. Nonetheless, with all the attention it is now receiving, it does feel like a special moment for the fight against gerrymandering.
James Pagano is a second-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Research Assistant at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance. He previously worked at Democracy International (DI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on a series of international programs aimed at improving the administration of elections and the quality of democratic governance around the world. At Harvard, James continues to study voting rights and electoral policy and also works as an Associate Editor for the Kennedy School Review.