JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – With the census approaching, lawmakers in some states are attempting to alter recent voter-approved measures that were intended to reduce partisan gamesmanship when drawing new voting districts for the U.S. House and state legislatures.
In Missouri and Utah, Republican-led legislatures have advanced proposals to unravel key provisions in redistricting initiatives passed in 2018 before they can be used to draw new legislative maps next year. The Republican Party in Michigan is suing to strike down new prohibitions on politicians’ involvement in redistricting.
It’s not just Republicans who are questioning redistricting reforms. In Virginia, new Democratic majorities in the General Assembly have delayed action for months on a proposal to shift redistricting power from lawmakers to a new bipartisan commission. The plan won strong initial bipartisan approval last year, when Republicans narrowly controlled both chambers. The House has until Saturday, when its session ends, to take the final vote necessary to put the idea to the November ballot.
Advocates for redistricting reform say there is a common theme in the political pushback.
“I think it comes down to people wanting to hold on to power,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation at the League of Women Voters, which has backed redistricting overhauls in states across the U.S.
The 2020 census aims to count everyone living in the U.S. as of April 1. Those totals — broken down by counties, cities and specific addresses — will be provided to states in 2021 to use in drawing new boundaries for voting districts that could influence the balance of political power in Congress and state legislatures for the next decade.
In many states, lawmakers and governors will shape the new districts. After Republicans scored big statehouse victories in the 2010 elections, they used their enhanced power in 2011 to draw districts to their advantage in some states. Democrats have historically done the same where they were in control.
Through gerrymandering, the majority party typically spreads voters of the opposing party across multiple districts, diluting their influence, or packs them into only a few districts. Both strategies essentially ensure the majority party's grip on power.
Who draws maps can make a big difference in who wins elections. In Pennsylvania, for example, congressional districts drawn by Republicans in 2011 resulted in the GOP winning 13 of the state's 18 U.S. House seats, even though votes for statewide offices were about evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. After the Democrat-tilted state Supreme Court redrew the maps for the 2018 elections, each party won nine seats.
In recent years, more states have adopted redistricting reforms intended to diminish the potential for partisan gerrymandering. Voters in 2018 approved such measures in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah. Activist groups are pursuing similar measures for the 2020 ballot in Arkansas, Nevada, Oklahoma and Oregon.
Some lawmakers and party officials contend the voter-approved measures have not been well-crafted, pointing to alleged constitutional violations and unintended consequences.
Rather than preventing gerrymandering, Missouri's voter-approved measure actually “compounds gerrymandering in an exponential fashion,” said Republican state Sen. Dan Hegeman, who is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment to revise the measure.
Hegeman's legislation would ask voters this November to repeal the 2018 measure's creation of a “nonpartisan demographer” who would craft state House and Senate maps to achieve “partisan fairness” and “competitiveness" as determined by a specific mathematical formula. An Associated Press analysis shows the formula would likely lead to Democratic gains in the Legislature while dropping Republican majorities closer to the more even partisan division often reflected in statewide races.
Republicans contend the formula could result in long, snaking districts stretching from cities to rural areas to try to merge Democratic and Republican voters into competitive districts that may divide traditional communities of interest.
The Missouri legislation, which is pending in the Republican-led House, would leave the map-making to a pair of existing bipartisan commissions and drop the criteria for politically fair and competitive districts to the bottom of the priority list. It would combine those revisions with new limits on lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions — using the same tactic to appeal to voters as the sponsors of the original Clean Missouri initiative did in 2018.
“It's infuriating that politicians are trying to undo the will of voters like this,” Sean Nicholson, campaign director for Clean Missouri, said in a recent fundraising email to supporters.
In Utah, supporters of the Better Boundaries initiative that won narrow approval in 2018 have agreed to a compromise with lawmakers to revise the original measure.
The new plan, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, would drop a requirement that the Legislature take an up-or-down vote on the redistricting maps developed by a new bipartisan commission and provide a formal explanation if it chooses not to adopt them. Lawmakers contended that would infringe on their constitutional powers.
The new legislation would also repeal a requirement to use a statistical “partisan symmetry” test to ensure districts do not unduly favor any political party, instead directing the advisory commission to develop its own standards against political favoritism. The House has until its March 12 adjournment to pass the plan.
Republican Sen. Curt Bramble, who is sponsoring the revision, said the directive for partisan symmetry was unclear and subjective.
“We have maintained the core of the initiative — the independent redistricting committee, the funding of it — but we have removed those areas that have been problematic," Bramble said.
Rebecca Chavez-Houck, a former Democratic state House member who is executive director of Utah's Better Boundaries, said the group agreed to the legislative changes to avoid the potential for the measure to be completely repealed or drastically weakened.
But the left-leaning nonprofit Alliance for a Better Utah remains skeptical of the deal.
“The question for the Utah public is, does this give us more transparency and accountability than Prop. 4 did, or less? The answer is obviously less,” said alliance Policy Director Lauren Simpson, referring to the law by its name on the 2018 ballot, Proposition 4.
Associated Press writers Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City and Alan Suderman in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.