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The map-maker: Using the ‘competition model’ as an alternative to current redistricting process

by Tim Anderson ~ October 2011 ~ Stateline Midwest
He was fascinated by maps as a child, teaches physics at Northern Illinois University, and is a former alderman and mayor who helped redraw ward boundaries in his hometown. It is no wonder that Illinois Rep. Mike Fortner has taken a keen interest in redistricting since joining the state General Assembly in 2007.
“There is nothing else like it that brings together maps, numbers and politics,” he says.
Fortner serves as the Republican spokesman on the Illinois House Redistricting Committee, but it is his work on the political maps of another Midwestern state — Ohio — that has been receiving attention of late.
Earlier this year, he took part in a contest organized by a coalition of groups that invited citizens to draw new maps for Ohio’s congressional and legislative districts.
Entries were evaluated based on four criteria: preserving county boundaries; compactness; competitiveness (the higher number of districts that could be won by either major political party, the better); and representational fairness (matching the partisan bias of the state’s districts with the history of statewide partisan voting patterns).
Fortner won both contests, one for his legislative map and the other for his congressional map. Then, in September, Ohio Democrats introduced one of Fortner’s maps as an alternative to the Republicans’ congressional plan, saying it created more politically competitive districts and kept more counties within a single district. (The map that the Democrats chose was not Fortner’s winning entry; rather, it was another submission with less population deviation among districts.)
The plan by Republicans (which control the legislature and governor’s office) won approval, but Fortner hopes the idea of a redistricting contest catches on in other states.
He calls it the “competition model,” as opposed to the independent-commission model most often discussed as an alternative to the current redistricting process, which is often criticized for protecting incumbents and the interests of political parties.
“The Founding Fathers would have wanted highly competitive districts, to see legislatures change with the whims of the public,” Fortner says. “Unfortunately, we’ve gone away from that.”
He particularly likes the “competition model” because people, not computers, draw the maps — thus allowing for electoral data, political considerations and legal concerns to be taken into account. Computers are simply used to evaluate the people-drawn maps.
He filed a constitutional amendment in 2009 to use the competition model in Illinois. Under his plan, a state commission would oversee the redistricting “contest,” in which anyone could submit a map. Any map that met the necessary legal requirements would then be evaluated on a set of objective criteria. Next, the legislature would be presented with the three maps that received the highest scores. And in order for a map that did not receive the highest score to be adopted, a super-majority vote would be required.