When the inaugural Virginia Redistricting Commission gathered in January 2022, it broke new ground: It was the first to bring politicians and citizens together to draw legislative and congressional maps collaboratively.
“But starting that first day, I already had the feeling that there were going to be legislators, including from my own party, that were going to try and skirt the rules,” recalled James Abrenio, a Democratic citizen commissioner from Fairfax in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. While citizen commissioners joined the meeting individually, the commission’s state senators Zoomed into the event en masse.
Abrenio was upset that the panel’s legislators “had clearly talked offline beforehand, in violation of the rules.” According to the attorney, this became a pattern: Legislators repeatedly met privately and cut the citizen commissioners out of the decision-making process. Seven months later, Abrenio and other Democratic-allied commissioners—the 16-member panel was divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats—walked out of a meeting. “I never want to be involved in this again,” he said.
In the past five years, voters in Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia enacted state constitutional amendments establishing commissions and rules to promote fairness in redistricting. But not all reforms are created equal. Larger commissions free of legislators and staffed with citizens from diverse political backgrounds have succeeded, while more political commissions, like Virginia’s and Ohio’s, have invited chaos.
Brian Cannon, who led the OneVirginia2021 campaign to pass the amendment, confessed that the Commonwealth’s panel is “not a dream commission.” He added, “Ideally, there would have been no legislators involved.” But in Virginia, voters cannot place a constitutional amendment on the ballot alone; the process requires referenda to be legislatively referred.
In 2019, Republicans and Democrats in the Virginia General Assembly hatched a compromise. They would assuage reformers, like Cannon, by establishing a bipartisan redistricting commission. Legislators, however, would get half of the commission’s seats. And citizen commissioners would be selected from lists approved by legislative leaders. Instead of preventing politicians from drawing their districts, the Virginia panel solidified their ability to choose their voters.
“Virginia is probably the leading example of what not to do,” Dave Wasserman, senior editor of Cook Political Report with Amy Walter, told me. “It was more or less set up to fail. If you design a commission with equal numbers of partisans, you can’t expect them to agree on anything.”
But while the Virginia commission failed to reach an agreement, the process ultimately succeeded. After the commission deadlocked in October 2021, unable to reach a compromise, the state supreme court intervened and established fair maps in Virginia for the first time in decades.
“Sending the decision directly to the court was a feature, not a bug, of our amendment,” Cannon told me. Virginia’s new system, unlike other recent redistricting reforms, provides a clear backup plan if the commission fails.
“Elected officials derailed the process based on poor calculus,” Cannon said. “Republican legislators on the commission, in particular, thought that if the commission failed, and it went to the Virginia Supreme Court, the justices were going to hand them a Republican gerrymander, but that didn’t happen.”
Sam Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, concurred with Cannon’s assessment. “The lesson learned from Virginia is that when a commission deadlocks, there needs to be some nonpartisan backstop mechanism, ideally a state court that can draw the maps itself.” That’s what makes Virginia a different story from Ohio.
In 2018, Ohio legislators achieved a bipartisan agreement—the Congressional Redistricting Procedures Amendment. The legislatively referred referendum, which won the support of nearly 75 percent of Ohioans, banned maps drawn to favor one party but interrupted efforts by activists trying to exclude legislators from the redistricting process. Instead, the amendment allowed the legislature to continue to draw the state’s congressional maps so long as a majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the general assembly signed off.
The Ohio amendment empowered a seven-person commission to draw the maps if the legislature could not agree on a plan. And if neither the legislature nor the commission could reach a consensus, the 2018 amendment allowed for the state legislature to redistrict by simple majority vote on the condition that the new maps would last only four years instead of an entire decade as is common following a U.S. Census.
While some Ohioans celebrated the redistricting amendment’s adoption in 2018, others were skeptical that it would prevent gerrymandering. The ACLU of Ohio, for example, refused to back the amendment and warned that if a “compromise cannot be reached, the [new] rules allow for more power to be wielded by the majority party … [and] could easily disintegrate back to a wholly partisan power grab.”
Last year, the ACLU’s concerns were borne out. The Republican-controlled state legislature went to town when the legislative and commission processes failed. A similar outcome occurred in legislative redistricting. On multiple occasions, the Ohio Supreme Court found that the GOP congressional and legislative proposals violated the state constitution’s ban on partisan gerrymandering but has been unable to intervene in any substantive fashion.
“The Ohio Supreme Court has judged the maps and found them to be gerrymanders, but
since the constitution fails to grant them the authority to either draw the maps themselves or force the commission to do its job, Ohioans are now stuck with gerrymandered maps,” Wang, the director of Princeton Gerrymandering Project, said.
“The issue is, wherever and whenever possible, politicians find the loophole and exploit it,” Dave Daley, author of Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, told me.
In Arizona, Republicans have found one such loophole. The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission was established by a voter-initiated referendum in 2000. Composed of two Democrats, two Republicans, and one independent citizen, the AIRC is a small panel. Citizens nominate themselves, and the Arizona Commission on Appellate Court Appointments (CACA), which is otherwise concerned with state judicial nominations, reviews the applications and selects finalists. Following the CACA nomination process, Republican and Democratic legislative leadership, respectively, selects the four partisan commissioners. The final independent commissioner is then selected by their peers.
According to Daley, CACA was once a “sleepy personnel board.” Still, throughout his tenure as governor, Doug Ducey refused to appoint Democrats to the commission, so this cycle, four of the five finalists for the independent seat had Republican ties. A Ducey donor, Erika Neuberg, was ultimately selected as the panel’s independent member.
“The problem with Arizona is that the overwhelming majority of the commission is made up of partisans, and so the one independent member becomes a kingmaker,” Wasserman said. “If there are genuine independents or unaffiliated voters serving on a commission, it creates more incentives for the parties to come to the table and negotiate.”
“In Arizona, citizens set up a process that they thought would work, but politicians probed until they found the weakness in the single independent member,” Daley, now a senior fellow at FairVote, lamented, “and then they drove a truck right through the obscure board that was CACA.”
In 2020, Arizona Democrats won five of the state’s nine congressional seats, but under the new maps adopted by Neuberg’s commission, Democrats will probably lose two of those seats next month.
But while Arizona, Ohio, and Virginia struggled to achieve fair districts, California, Michigan, and Colorado excelled. What do those three states have in common? Voter-initiated constitutional amendments established large redistricting commissions with multiple independent/unaffiliated commissioners.
“Redistricting is not just about parties,” Wang said. “It’s about all of the diverse interests that exist within a state. And having more commissioners increases the possibility of representing those various interests.”
California, according to Daley, is the “gold standard” of redistricting commissions. The commission comprises 14 citizens—five Democrats, five Republicans, and four unaffiliated voters. Politicians are excluded. California residents self-nominate for the position, are vetted by the state auditor’s office, and then are chosen by lottery.
Michigan and Colorado, which established redistricting commissions in 2018, have similar processes with commissioners elected through nonpartisan vetting and chance. “We definitely looked to California as a model,” Katie Fahey, who led the campaign for a commission in Michigan, told me. “That randomness was essential to preventing politicians from being able to put their thumb on the scale.”
Of the 15 congressional races in Michigan this year, four are considered competitive. And in a close-fought midterm election, it could make all the difference.
“There’s no denying that it can be difficult to get these new processes off the ground, but Michigan and Colorado succeeded because they were set up to succeed. It’s no accident that the bulk of competitive districts this fall are in states with independently drawn commission maps,” Wasserman said.
Editor’s note: The author previously served as an undergraduate research assistant at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.