Do Independent Redistricting Commissions Really Prevent Gerrymandering? Yes, They Do

A woman stands with her back to the camera and speaks towards a group of people seated at a long table covered in black cloth
A woman addresses the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (MICRC) at a public hearing in Detroit, Michigan on July 15, 2021. Photo by Tyler Stabile

Across the country, state governments and redistricting commissions are redrawing voting maps that will determine representation for the next 10 years. Campaign Legal Center (CLC), along with a majority of American voters, believe independent redistricting commissions (IRC), rather than legislatures, should draw maps, in order to stop gerrymandering. 

Currently, several states use redistricting commissions to draw congressional and state legislative maps. These commissions can range from having elected officials on them — known as political commissions — to being completely independent by barring all elected officials from being commissioners.

A range of these commissions, such as Colorado, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia — are being put to the test for the first time.

In Colorado and Michigan, the independent commissions are composed of 12 and 13 citizens, respectively. The commissioners are selected through a winding process that includes a lottery selection system and prevents certain people from applying such as politicians and their spouses.

In Ohio, the state legislative maps are drawn by a seven-member politician commission. The commission is composed of the four statewide officials and leaders of the majority and minority parties in the legislature. Practically speaking, this means the Ohio Redistricting Commission is composed of five Republicans and two Democrats.

In Virginia, the 16-member commission is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and is also evenly split amongst politicians and citizens.

To varying degrees, these commissions have had their share of problems. In Ohio, the Republican commissioners rushed through a map so partisan that some have now admitted that the maps are less than “clearly constitutional” and the “commission did not work in good faith.”

In Virginia, the commissioners could never reach an agreement on a unified process. Instead, the commission ultimately, as a commissioner described it, “split the baby constantly along party lines.” When it was time to hire a lawyer, the commission hired two: a Democrat and a Republican. When it was time to approve a map, the commission, again, chose two.

It is not a surprise that neither passed and now the Supreme Court of Virginia will draw the maps while relying on two special masters: a Democrat and a Republican.

In Michigan and Colorado, although the commissions have had their hiccups both procedurally and substantively, the reforms are still working better than the process used in previous cycles where maps were drawn in secret, behind closed doors.

Despite these varying tribulations, these reforms are still working to safeguard against gerrymandered maps by: 

  • Following detailed mapping criteria.

During the 2011 redistricting cycle in Ohio, Republicans held secret meetings in a hotel conference room dubbed “the bunker” to draw an egregiously gerrymandered map that produced a guaranteed GOP supermajority.

Although the newly created commission passed another gerrymander, voting rights advocates now have a tool that they did not have before: language in the Ohio Constitution barring partisan gerrymanders.

ACLU filed a lawsuit and CLC submitted an amicus brief in the Ohio Supreme Court advocating for the court to give the anti-gerrymandering language the full force it deserves.

This anti-gerrymandering language also exists in Colorado, Michigan and Virginia and has been a vital tool in the fight for fair maps. In Michigan, for example, districts may not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party based on “accepted measures of partisan fairness.”

  • Providing more transparency and more public input in the map drawing process.

After drawing maps in “the bunker” in 2011, two of the Republican Ohio commissioners again tried to resort to drawing maps in secret but this time, voting rights advocates have a chance to stop these maps from actually being implemented.

This is because Ohio law now requires the commission to hold at least three hearings before introducing a legislative plan. During these hearings, fair maps advocates expressed their concern about the perception that Republicans were again attempting to draw unfair maps while ignoring public input.

Further, resources like PlanScore have allowed advocates to call out attempted partisan gerrymanders. ACLU’s expert in the litigation relied heavily on PlanScore in his expert analysis discussing how the proposed legislative maps fail to meet the anti-gerrymandering standard in the Ohio constitution.

  • Guiding legal challenges through a streamlined, judicial process.

All of these reforms allow for faster judicial review. In Colorado, for example, the IRCs have to submit plans to the Colorado Supreme Court. CLC argued that the congressional commission diluted the votes of Latino voters both to the commission and before the Colorado Supreme Court.

Although the court ultimately disagreed with CLC’s position, the fact that the dispute is resolved a year before the 2022 elections is a positive development.  

But regardless of whether politicians or commissions draw the maps, what’s most important for achieving fair maps is a commitment to some basic principles, which include transparency and anti-gerrymandering language.

Although these new commissions have had their share of issues, voting rights advocates are using these tools to be better positioned to fight for fair maps.

Christopher is a senior legal counsel at CLC.
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