What does the League believe a better system looks like?
Responsibility for redistricting preferably should be vested in an independent special commission, with membership that reflects the diversity of the unit of government, including citizens at large, representatives of public interest groups, and members of minority groups.
A better system for drawing electoral maps requires three components:
- an independent commission
- the right set of criteria for drawing fair maps
- a transparent process that involves and informs the citizens
The League of Women Voters has studied redistricting reform and promoted change across the country since 1966. Successful League campaigns have led to reform in states such as Ohio, Florida, Arizona, Montana, and California. State Leagues continue to promote reform not only in North Carolina but in many other states.
The League’s extensive studies of redistricting options and experiences have identified the key elements that make up a better redistricting system, including the design of the commission the criteria used, and the process that the commission should follow:
Designing a commission: How are the members selected?
The design of a commission can be expected to vary from state to state, based on their constitution, local conditions, and negotiations among the parties. For this reason, the League has not as yet developed a specific policy on commission design, beyond specifying that it should be independent.
States use variations on three basic models to draw their electoral districts:
- In most states, including North Carolina, a committee of legislators draws the maps. This committee is often bipartisan, but dominated by the majority party. The committee may conduct hearings, but too often the real decision-making takes place behind closed doors.
- Other states use a commission appointed by the state’s senior elected officials, often including the governor, the state house and senate majority and minority leaders, and, in some cases, the chief justice of the state supreme court.
- A small but growing number of states use an independent commission selected through a nonpartisan process. The committee members are typically selected through a two-step procedure:
- Citizens apply to join a pool of possible commissioners and are then screened by a nonpartisan body such as the state audit board or the judges selection commission to identify eligible commission members. Senior elected officials may have the right to remove up to a certain number of pool members from further consideration.
- The members of the commission are then selected from this pool by one of several methods: i) by lot, ii) by the state’s senior elected officials (taking turns), and/or iii) by members of the first group of commissioners (chosen earlier by one of the two previous methods).
- Iowa uses a system in which the non-partisan legislative research staff serve as the commission.
- Many states also specify a secondary body, such as the state’s supreme court, that may:
- Advise the commission (or the legislators),
- Review and approve the plan adopted by the legislature, or
- Serve as a back-up in the event that: i) the legislative committee or the commission cannot agree on a map or ii) the legislature does not adopt the plan proposed by the committee or commission.
The final membership of the commission is often specified to include a mix of members from the two major parties and members who are not members of any party. One of the latter typically chairs the commission.
These methods vary considerably in how likely they are to result in a commission made up of truly independent, impartial, and nonpartisan members – in redistricting, the devil is always in the details!
The Process: How does the committee or commission draw the maps?
The League calls for a redistricting process that includes:
- Specific timelines for the steps leading to a redistricting plan
- Full disclosure throughout the process and public hearings on the plan proposed for adoption
- Redistricting at all levels of government must be accomplished in an open, unbiased manner with citizen participation and access at all levels and steps of the process, and
- Should be subject to open meeting laws.
- A provision that any redistricting plan should be adopted by the redistricting authority with more than a simple majority vote.
- Remedial provisions established in the event that the redistricting authority fails to enact a plan. Specific provisions should be made for court review of redistricting measures and for courts to require the redistricting authority to act on a specific schedule.
- Time limits should be set for initiating court action for review.
- The courts should promptly review and rule on any challenge to a redistricting plan and require adjustments if the standards have not been met.
The Criteria: What information can be used in drawing district boundaries?
The League believes that the criteria on which a redistricting plan is based, and on which any plan should be judged, must:
- Be enforceable in court, by requiring: substantially equal population, geographic contiguity, and effective representation of racial and linguistic minorities
- Provide (to the extent possible) for promotion of partisan fairness, preservation and protection of “communities of interest,” and respect for boundaries of municipalities and counties
- Explicitly reject: protection of incumbents, through such devices as considering an incumbent’s address and preferential treatment for a political party, through such devices as considering party affiliation, voting history and candidate residence
Compactness and competitiveness may also be considered as criteria so long as they do not conflict with the above criteria.