Stateline Story

Redistricting Causes Sparks Regardless of Process

  • August 15, 2001
  • By Jason White

With ten years of state and congressional political control hanging in the balance, redistricting is often rife with power struggles and partisanship. But over the past few decades, many states have tried to get the partisanship out of the process by enacting various guidelines, from employing independent mapmakers to giving the courts a say.

Twelve states -- Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington -- have gone so far as to give the primary responsibility for redrawing state legislative lines to independent commissions instead of politicians, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In six of those -- Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington -- commissions redraw congressional lines as well. But there's some question as to just how successful, and non-partisan, these commissions are proving to be.

"So far it looks like this redistricting round all the commissions are partisan," says Michael McDonald, professor of political science at the University of Illinois - Springfield and an expert on redistricting. McDonald also runs a Web site that tracks redistricting action across the country.

To date, seven states -- Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska and Nevada -- have finished redrawing congressional lines. Thirty-six more have yet to complete their work. The seven remaining states -- Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming -- have no need to redistrict because they have only one representative in Congress. Every state will redraw state legislative lines. Seven have finished that task so far.

New Jersey is one example of a state whose redistricting board struggled to rise above partisan squabbles. Redistricting there is handled by a 10-person commission made up of five Democrats and five Republicans. They meet to see if they can agree on a remap plan. If they can't, the chief justice of the state supreme court chooses a non-partisan 11th member to cast the tie-breaking vote. Since the commission was first created in 1966, agreement has been rare.

After the Democrats and Republicans failed to agree on a new map this time around, the chief justice chose Larry Bartels, professor of political science at Princeton University, to be the decisive vote. Bartels decided in April to go with the Democrat's plan because he thought it better met the criteria deemed important by various courts and legislators -- racial makeup, population equality and physical shape. His decision was of course applauded by Democrats and decried by Republicans. It spurred a lawsuit over racial fairness that is heading toward the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The New Jersey redistricting process is far from being non-partisan, since 10 of the 11 members of the apportionment commission are appointed by the state party chairs," says Bartels. "But the equality between the parties, and the presence of a non-partisan tie-breaker, give the process a very different dynamic than it would have if either party had a clear majority."

Bartels thinks the commission has a moderating effect on the process because the parties must temper their partisan interests to appeal to the non-partisan tie-breaker. "My own view is that that is good for the citizens of the state," he says.

Analysts applaud the principle behind the creation of these commissions, saying apportionment should be concerned with maintaining voter parity and not with advancing the interests of politicians. But they say putting this principle into practice is much easier said than done.

Tim Storey, redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures, says one problem with commissions is they consolidate a lot of power in the hands of just a few people. And these people are often political appointees.

Arizona tried to get around this problem by mandating that the fifth and deciding member of that state's commission is chosen by the other four -- two Democrats and two Republicans. But because the party representatives are likely to favor different plans, the power to shape the state's political destiny over the next ten years will lie in the hands of one person, just like in New Jersey.

With their internecine power struggles and debates between Republican and Democratic board members, independent redistricting commissions often come to resemble the legislatures they were designed to replace.

And that, according to one observer, shows just how difficult it is to get the politics out of politics.