Experience Shows that There is no Such Thing as an “Independent Redistricting Commission”

The Democrats six seat edge in 2012 was largely due to its five seat gain in the nine states with appointed commissions (which controlled 99 U.S. House seats) and its seven seat gain in the nine states, where the courts intervened and drew the map for 120 U.S. House seats. This means that in 2012, for maybe the first time in U.S. history, appointed rather than elected officials decided the boundaries of a majority of (219) U.S. House districts.


By Jay O’Callaghan l July 29, 2015

http://media.navigatored.com/images/GOV_november_redistricting.jpg

The Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission upholding Arizona’s congressional map as drawn by its appointed redistricting commission has set off a wave of support for this concept in the mainstream media. Unfortunately, experience shows that such commission usually favor Democrats progressive political agenda over Republicans freedom agenda as did the Arizona commission which created a 5-4 Democrat U.S. House plan in 2012, despite a Romney 53-44% victory and a 52-43% 2012 vote for Republican candidates for Congress.

Most of these redistricting commissions are chosen, like the one in Arizona, by left-leaning lawyers (in this case from Arizona’s judicial nominating commission) according to Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  He points out that, “if you are going to have gerrymandering of congressional districts, it might as well be done by a state legislature, which is accountable to the people, rather than a commission like this,” which is accountable to no one.

As Chief Justice Roberts noted in his dissent, “some of the commissioners were motivated in part in some of the line drawing decisions by a desire to improve Democratic prospects in the affected districts,” and that the Commission retained a mapping consultant who “had worked for Democratic, independent, and nonpartisan campaigns, but no Republican campaigns.”

Moreover, in the Arizona decision, SCOTUS strove to redefine the word “legislature” to include unelected, unaccountable, undemocratic bodies like Independent Redistricting Commissions.

The Arizona experience was repeated across the nation according to a study by this author of 2012 U.S. House election results and what method of redistricting was used as reported in the 2014 Almanac of American Politics. Democrats gained five U.S. House seats and won the 99 U.S. House seats created by appointed redistricting commissions in nine states by an overwhelming 66-33 in 2012.

As long time almanac author and political expert Michael Barone points out, the Republican advantage in redistricting is overstated.  “Republicans after 2010 controlled redistricting in Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia and North Carolina (138 House seats). But Democrats controlled redistricting in Illinois and Maryland and, by successfully gaming purportedly nonpartisan redistricting commissions, in California and Arizona (88 House seats)… Remember that despite Republicans’ redistricting advantage after the 2000 Census, Democrats won majorities in the House in 2006 and 2008. If opinion changes, redistricting doesn’t matter.”

In fact, a look at who finally created the 2012 district plans in each state after many courts ended up intervening  in the process shows that Republicans only ended up drawing the map (through their control of the Governor and state legislatures) in 15 states with 149 seats. This is only a little more than one third of the 435 US House seats. The GOP won 110-39 in these states for a gain of seven with the Democrats losing ten.

But overall this GOP gain was wiped out easily in states which used appointed redistricting commissions, had Democrat control of the legislature, adopted bi-partisan compromises or where a court ended up drawing the map.  Democrats actually gained six seats in the 43 states which redistricted their U.S. House seats. They gained five seats in appointed commission states, three seats in Democrat controlled states, one seat in states with bi-partisan compromises, and seven seats in states where the courts finally ended up drawing the districts.

The Democrats six seat edge in 2012 was largely due to its five seat gain in the nine states with appointed commissions (which controlled 99 U.S. House seats) and its seven seat gain in the nine states, where the courts intervened and drew the map for 120 U.S. House seats. This means that in 2012, for maybe the first time in U.S. history, appointed rather than elected officials decided the boundaries of  a majority of (219) U.S. House districts.

This decided edge for Democrats through mainly appointed judges and commissions in deciding district lines is highlighted by the takeover of the process by the Florida Supreme Court in its recent decision ordering the GOP-controlled legislature to redraw the lines in eight districts. The court ordered the legislature to use a map prepared by experts from the Democrat Congressional Campaign Committee and another Democrat judge gave the legislature only 75 days to redraw it.

The court’s 5-2 decision was made mainly by the same judges that voted in 2000 for a lengthy recount in key Democrat counties to help elect Al Gore President until it was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The mainly Democrat appointed courts have used the new and confusing Florida “Fair District” constitutional amendment to pressure the GOP-controlled legislature to draw a map that helped the Democrats gain four seats in Florida in 2012. Some experts believe that the court may takeover the entire map and help Democrats win a majority of the state’s once heavily GOP congressional delegation.

As Michael Barone said, “the fact is that supposedly nonpartisan redistricting commissions are not going to get rid of polarization (which results from voter attitudes) or gridlock (which results from the executive’s low negotiating skills).”  But the growing use of these appointed commissions with appointed judges may give the Democrats a reasonable chance to win the U.S. House after 2020.


Jay O’Callaghan has worked extensively with issues involving the U.S. Census Bureau including serving as a professional staff member for the House Government Reform Census Subcommittee, as a senior legislative analyst for the Florida House of Representatives Redistricting Committee and for two U.S. House members. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.