In a nutshell:
- Michigan is one of four states (Colorado, Utah, Missouri) with redistricting reform proposals on the November ballot.
- The proposals have similar requirements for how maps are drawn, requiring transparent and open processes, and placing limits on who can serve on the commissions, but the commissions themselves vary.
- The commission offered under Michigan’s Proposal 2 is most similar to Colorado’s proposed reform, and compares favorably in terms of partisan fairness to Utah and Missouri, though at a cost of accountability.
Proposal 2 on the November ballot would drastically alter Michigan’s redistricting system. We’re not alone this year; Michigan will be one of four states voting on a constitutional amendment to change redistricting laws. Amendments proposed by Better Boundaries in Utah and Clean Missouri in the Show-me state will be on the ballot through the citizen initiative process, like it is here in Michigan. Colorado citizens will vote on a proposal crafted by their state legislature.
These proposals have many common features. Each for example, would prevent redistricting commissioners from holding or running for partisan office for a time after their service. All four set standards that a new redistricting plan must follow, including requiring partisan balance, considering communities of interest (to some extent), and following other common redistricting guidelines.
California and Arizona, which passed redistricting reforms for the 2011 and 2001 redistricting process respectively, have been somewhat successful in both reducing partisan bias and increasing the competitiveness of state’s elections. Each of the four proposals for the November ballot are explicitly designed to limit partisan gerrymandering, but distinctions in how each aims to accomplish this goal could impact their effectiveness. While we’ve looked at Proposal 2 in depth, how do the options available in Colorado, Utah, and Missouri fair?
Colorado’s proposed Independent Legislative Redistricting Commission is very similar to the commission created by Michigan’s Proposal 2; a panel of three recently retired judges (one from each of the two major political parties, and one from neither party) are tasked with selecting the most qualified commissioners from a random pool of applicants. The judges must select 12 commissioners – four from each major party, and four independents.
Approval of a majority of eight commissioners – including a minimum of two from outside the major parties – is required for the commission to adopt final maps. This means that independents can drive the process; if all four independents agree with a map proposed by the commissioners from one party, the second party cannot stop the map from passing. So unlike Proposal 2, which requires two votes from each party and two independent votes, a party could be entirely shut out from the initial vote.
The design of the commission is suited fairly well to prevent gerrymandering. Because the potential commissioners’ applications are reviewed, and former judges that have divided political interests review candidates, it is unlikely that an independent commissioner is appointed while strongly favoring one party. Even if they did, all four non-affiliated commissioners would have to have a strong bias in the same direction for the commission to completely reflect partisan interests, something that seems unlikely. If all four independent commissioners do not agree, at least one member from each party would have to approve a redistricting plan. Further, districts would be required to meet fairness standards and be as competitive as possible; this limits the ability of the commission to create biased maps.
The initial maps are drafted by nonpartisan staff. If the commission fails to approve the proposed map, the third and final option proposed by the nonpartisan staff would be submitted to the state Supreme Court. Because nonpartisan staff is required to demonstrate impartiality on a day-to-day basis in their job, it is unlikely they will design a biased redistricting plan. Additionally, the Supreme Court must approve a map if the commission fails, using state criteria designed to ensure fair maps. While it does not necessarily drive the commission towards consensus, the process does limit partisan influence.
The proposed Utah Independent Redistricting Commission would function more like those in Washington and Idaho. Instead of a pool of applicants that is completely independent from political influences, the seven commissioners would be selected by partisan officers and political parties: one each from the Governor, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House, house and senate minority leaders, and each of the two major political parties. While these nominations are under the same sort of limitations that exist in Michigan’s Proposal 2 (commissioners cannot be a lobbyist, they cannot have run for office within the previous four years nor run for four years after the next map is used, and cannot be a partisan political appointee), this will lead to direct political influence over the commission.
The appointment of commissioners by party leaders and an unbalanced commission (as the party in control of the governor’s office would have four commissioners, while the other major party would have three) makes it likely that partisan politics could take over the commission. However, the need for at least five votes to adopt a map forces the two parties to come to some consensus, as at least one member from each party would be required to vote for a plan that passes.
While the Utah commissioners would be required to compromise, a few provisions could make this compromise toothless. Alarmingly, the state legislature would be able to reject the recommendation of the commission and implement a redistricting plan of their own volition. A replacement plan would still have to be accompanied by an explanation of why it better met the requirements imposed, but it leaves ground for interference. As Arizona’s experience has shown, legislative involvement can drag partisan politics back into the process.
While commissioners would not themselves be elected officials or candidates, they are likely to have interests that align with the party that nominated them. If the commission deadlocks, the decision goes to the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, leaving the decision in the hands of a lone partisan official.
In defense of the Better Boundaries proposal, the amendment would require that the districts pass a partisan symmetry test (like the efficiency gap or the proportionality test, so even though potential back doors would allow singular partisan influences to gerrymander the state’s maps, there is also a check to limit those influences. This is more specific than the partisan fairness standard included in Michigan’s Proposal 2 or the proposal by the Colorado legislature, making it more enforceable, though there is still ambiguity to which partisan symmetry tests could be used.
Unlike the other proposals, the Clean Missouri initiative includes several other government reform measures: campaign finance laws reform, “revolving door” prohibition – restriction on legislators and staff becoming lobbyists, and governmental transparency.
The legislative redistricting process proposed by Clean Missouri would look more like Iowa’s unique process than any of the other initiatives on the November ballot, but has some twists of its own. Instead of creating a commission responsible for designing district plans, the amendment would create the Office of Non-partisan State Demographer to design the maps. Applications for this position would be reviewed by the State Auditor, and a list of qualified candidates would be given to the majority and minority leaders in the senate to choose from. If the two agree on a candidate, that person would be selected for the position. If they cannot agree, each could remove up to one-third of the applicants and the demographer would be chosen at random from remaining candidates. While the demographer would be responsible for drawing the state maps, a balanced commission selected by the two major state parties (five per party in the senate, and one member of each party from every congressional district in the house) would be responsible for approving the map.
Once the demographer proposes a map, the commission would be able to amend the recommendation to create a final map. A seven-tenths majority is necessary for the edits to be included in the final map. If no edits are proposed, or proposed edits do not garner seven-tenths of the votes, then the map submitted by the demographer is adopted.
While Iowa’s use of non-partisan staff to draft district lines has been successful, it is uncertain whether it can be exported to meet Missouri’s needs. Unlike in Iowa, Missouri’s Non-partisan State Demographer would be a single individual selected from a list of candidates approved by a partisan official. Because the commission and the demographer are the only ones with authority to edit redistricting plans, a biased demographer would have both the power and the motivation to influence Missouri’s districts. If a super-majority of commissioners could not agree on how to fix a biased redistricting plan, the demographer’s recommendation would become final without modifications. Because the commission would be balanced, it is unlikely that any changes would occur unless they were better for both parties. In the instance of a biased map, this means half of all commissioners would be incentivized to keep a map that was in their favor.
The proposal does require that all redistricting plans have as small of a score on the efficiency gap as possible, which limits how biased maps could become. But the efficiency gap is by no means a perfect measure, so relying exclusively on it may not always result in ideal outcomes.
So How Does Proposal 2 Compare?
The efforts to limit partisan gerrymandering under Michigan’s Proposal 2 are not perfect, as any bias in the independent commissioners would have an outsized influence on the process. While Colorado’s proposal is similar, the commissioner selection process in Proposal 2 leaves open more risk of bias than the design created by the Colorado Legislature. However, Proposal 2’s model for consensus building, which requires maps to be approved by two commissioners from each party and two independents, provides a stronger check than Colorado’s proposal.
Both Utah and Missouri’s processes leave more influence to partisan officers, as commissioners (and Missouri’s new state demographer) would be selected by partisan office holders or political parties. While these processes undoubtedly provide better checks on gerrymandering than the current processes, they leave open the chance for some partisan influences to modify the process.
While Proposal 2 would be more likely to limit partisan gerrymandering, these improvements trade off with the accountability benefits provided through the Utah and Missouri proposals. Because most commissioners in Utah and the demographer in Missouri are appointed by elected officials, those making some choices could be held responsible by voters (though this would not fix concerns that voters may have about unfair maps).
Despite the differences in these proposals, one common theme is present in redistricting reform. Voters face a tradeoff; a choice between the ability to hold redistricting bodies accountable and effectively limiting partisan gerrymandering. In each case, the potential for limiting gerrymandering will come at a cost to accountability with the removal of elected officials from the redistricting process.