Drawing the lines : Midwestern lawmakers turn their attention to redistricting
by Ilene K. Grossman ~ February/March 2010 ~ PDF of Firstline Midwest article »
Thirty years ago, Iowa passed landmark legislation that changed how its legislative and congressional districts are redrawn.
Today, the state’s process remains a unique approach, and policymakers in this region have been looking at Iowa’s model in recent years as they consider redistricting reforms in their own states.
In the United States, political districts are redrawn every 10 years to account for population changes measured by the census. The process involves the adjustment of political district boundaries, and in some cases, lawmakers must also reapportion congressional seats based on new demographic data. Recent projections have the Midwest losing six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives after the next census: one each in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, and two in Ohio.
Iowa’s process is unique because it turns over the process of generating new district maps to a nonpartisan legislative service agency. (The maps are submitted to the legislature for approval.) In all but one other Midwestern state (Ohio), legislatures have the first crack at redrawing district maps.
In most states, redistricting is a highly partisan process. Using sophisticated technology, parties and caucuses are now able to get detailed voting data and use the information to draw district lines. When one political party holds the majority in a state legislature, that group usually has control over the new maps.
Critics of this system say that districts are largely created to favor one party or another, and that allowing lawmakers to shape their own districts gives an advantage to incumbents. As a result, they say, true competition takes place in the primary races, and not in the general elections.
Political experts point out that the makeup of the U.S. Congress is a reflection of this process; only a small number of congressional districts are truly competitive.
Another side effect of such a legislative redistricting process is the potential for litigation, which leaves courts to make sure districts are fair and competitive.
After the 2000 census, courts addressed redistricting in at least 35 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In 19 of those states, court action led to a new or modified plan for use during at least one election cycle.
Lawmakers in the Midwest are now gearing up for a process that will launch in early 2011, when the U.S. Census Bureau makes population data available to states.
The Brennan Center, which studies redistricting processes in the states, sets out several principles that it believes lawmakers should follow:
- respect party competitiveness based on past election results;
- give the redistricting body political independence; and
- ensure the process is open and provides the opportunity for public input within individual districts.
With some of these goals in mind, several states in the Midwest are working to reform or revise their redistricting processes. In this article, we take a look at proposals in this region for revamping how states reapportion their districts.
Goal of proposals is to improve fairness, bipartisanship
Iowa adopted its unique method of redistricting in 1980. In passing HF 707 (chapter 42 of the Iowa Code), the legislature gave the authority to draw maps to the Legislative Service Bureau (now called the Legislative Services Agency), the nonpartisan support agency for the legislature. The plan is drawn up by the LSA and must meet four criteria: equal population, contiguousness, respect for political subdivisions and compactness. Click here for a guide to Iowa's legislative redistricting process. »
The LSA is charged with drawing up a plan, which cannot be amended and can only be voted up or down by a constitutional majority of the legislature. If that plan fails to pass, the same process is followed for a second plan.
If a third map is required, the legislature may amend that plan; if legislators cannot reach an agreement, the state’s Supreme Court draws the districts.
Legislative leaders appoint a bipartisan, five-member advisory commission that can offer the LSA advice if requested. The governor can veto any of the plans.
In the three rounds of redistricting that have occurred since the 1980 law was passed, legislators have adopted one of the three plans submitted by the LSA without amendment, and none of the plans has been challenged in court.
Over the last year, some Midwestern states have considered a handful of redistricting-reform proposals, some of which draw on the Iowa model. Other pieces of legislation propose new and innovative ways to change the process, with an eye toward bipartisanship and fairness.
Several efforts are under way to change the way Illinois handles redistricting. Currently the legislature handles state and federal redistricting, and a backup commission is called upon to draw the lines if lawmakers do not adopt a plan by June 30 following the release of census data.
The commission is selected by party leaders in the legislature, so if the eight-member commission cannot agree, a ninth member is randomly chosen from a set of names. This widely criticized tiebreaker method has been used for the last two rounds of redistricting.
Soon after he took office in 2009, Gov. Pat Quinn created the Illinois Reform Commission, which was charged in part with making recommendations about redistricting.
The reform commission’s final report voiced support for a proposed constitutional amendment (HJRCA 16) that, among other changes, would replace the current tiebreaker system.
Under HJRCA 16, if both the legislature and the backup redistricting panel fail to adopt new maps, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and a justice from the opposing party would appoint a “special master” to oversee the redistricting process. A citizens group is working to put a similar provision on the November ballot.
While it supported HJRCA 16 as a positive step, Quinn’s reform panel called for broader reforms. Members recommended the creation of a five-member temporary redistricting commission, which would hire an independent consultant firm to draw up maps.
The commission’s first two proposals could not be amended and would require a two-thirds majority to pass. If a third set of maps failed to pass, legislators could amend the maps, and the state Supreme Court would perform a review in the case of a deadlock. Many of those recommendations are included in SJRCA 69, which was introduced in May.
Ohio currently directs a State Apportionment Board (composed of the governor, secretary of state, auditor, and one legislator each from the majority and minority parties) to draw district lines for state legislative seats. (The General Assembly is responsible for creating congressional districts.)
Critics of the apportionment board point out that one party can dominate the process by holding up to four seats on the panel.
A proposed constitutional amendment, SJR 5, calls for replacing the current board with a seven-member commission (made up of the governor, auditor, secretary of state, speaker of the House, Senate president, and one representative each from the minority parties in the House and the Senate).
A five-vote supermajority would be needed to pass a redistricting plan, with at least two of the five votes coming from the party in the minority on the panel. The commission would be required to make each district competitive, compact and contiguous. SJR 5 passed the Senate in September.
Another approach to redistricting may be gaining traction in Ohio, too. A proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 15) would replicate the process used in the Ohio Redistricting Competition, which was launched in March 2009 by a coalition of organizations and sponsored by the secretary of state’s office.
Entrants were asked to demonstrate that congressional districts could be drawn to meet four objective criteria: competitiveness, compactness, community preservation and representational fairness. In the three winning plans, the majority of districts were competitive for either party.
Ohio’s HJR 15 would require the Apportionment Board to hold a public competition to draw the state legislative districts. The board would choose the plan that best fits the criteria, and the winning map would become the state redistricting plan.
HJR 15 would also remove responsibility for hearing and deciding on reapportionment cases from the state Supreme Court to a newly created apportionment special tribunal.
In order to be placed on November’s general-election ballot, both SJR 5 and HJR 15 would need to be approved by three-fifths of both legislative chambers within 90 days of the election.
Other states consider new redistricting laws
In January, the Indiana Senate approved by a 47-1 vote SB 80, which would create new guidelines for the legislature as it redraws congressional and legislative districts. Those guidelines include: neighborhood preservation; protection of minority voting rights; compactness and simple shape; preservation of local communities of interest; and respect for county and precinct lines.
A second bill (SB 136), which also received bipartisan approval in the Senate, would create a redistricting study committee. The group would be charged with reviewing best practices in other states and suggesting ways to improve the process, such as establishing an independent commission to draw district boundaries.
In Kansas, legislators are considering a bill (HB 2635) that would create a commission to look at the redistricting process and transfer map-drawing duties to the nonpartisan Legislative Research Department.
The bill mirrors the Iowa model and includes some strict time frames for consideration of the proposed maps. If HB 2635 is approved by the Legislature, the map would have to be introduced on the first day of the legislative session in 2012 and then be considered within three to seven days.
The Minnesota Senate passed legislation in May (SF 182) to implement reforms recommended by a panel led by former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson. The legislation would turn redistricting over to an independent commission, with four members — all retired appellate or district court judges — appointed by the top leader of each caucus in the House and Senate. The four members would then select a fifth judge.
SF 182 would prohibit the selection of judges that previously served in any party-designated or -endorsed position. As of early February, the legislation had been referred to a House committee.
In South Dakota, legislation (HB 1220) was introduced this year to put redistricting in the hands of a seven-member citizen commission; the plan is modeled after one used in Montana.
Under the legislation, the majority and minority leaders in both legislative chambers would choose the first four members of the commission, and these four commissioners would then choose the remaining three. Each of the seven members would need to be from one of seven designated regions of the state.
The commission’s proposed map would be submitted to the Legislature, which could then send back recommendations for revision. The commission could choose which suggestions to include and which to omit from the final plan.
Within 30 days of receiving the suggestions, the commission would submit its final redistricting plan, which would not need approval by the Legislature.
For more information on redistricting reform, please visit the following websites: