On Thursday, William and Mary will be hosting a Symposium entitled “Back to the Drawing Board: The 2010 Census and the Politics of Redistricting“. One of the panelists is Jessica Amunson, associate at the Washington, D.C., based firm Jenner & Block, where she is a member of the Election Law and Redistricting practice. Ms. Amunson agreed to speak with State of Elections regarding redistricting reform.
In your opinion, what is the biggest issue for the 2010 redistricting effort? What issue should states, legislators, and politicians be most attuned to?
The biggest issue is always who is going to control the process. For an idea of what is at stake, take a look at Karl Rove’s piece in the Wall Street Journal on March 4th, in which he describes how the Republican party is targeting certain state legislative seats in an attempt to ensure that Republicans will control the legislatures that will then redraw the lines. According to Rove’s piece, “Republican strategists are focused on 107 seats in 16 states. Winning these seats would give them control of drawing district lines for nearly 190 congressional seats. Six of these states are projected to pick up a total of nine seats, and five are expected to lose a combined six seats.” So right now, the issue that everyone is focused on are the state legislative races this fall.
Most state legislatures are responsible for creating their respective redistricting plans. However, a few states use an independent or bipartisan commission to reduce the role of politics. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of such plans and which do you believe is better?
While some states use a commission or board either as the primary authority to draw district lines, or as a backup in case the legislature fails to do so, it is debatable whether this actually “reduce[s] the role of politics” as the question suggests. In almost every state that uses a commission, at least some of its members are politically appointed. And the commissions typically depend on the staffs of the state legislatures to actually perform their tasks. What is potentially lost in this process is transparency. People believe that the commission is “independent” or “non-partisan” when in fact politics continue to play a significant role in the commission’s work. And just because a plan is drawn by a commission does not mean it is going to hold up in court. Courts have shown just as much willingness to strike down commission plans as those drawn by legislatures.
We know that the redistricting process has been abused in the past. What are some of the biggest obstacles to getting it right?
There are often conflicting forces at work in the redistricting process. For example, redistricters must take race into account in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act, but at the same time ensure that race is not the predominant motive in drawing a plan. As another example, the Supreme Court has said that political motives are perfectly acceptable in redistricting, but at the same time suggested that there is a line that can’t be crossed with respect to political gerrymandering (though it has not been able to define that line). And while redistricters must take “traditional districting criteria” into account, there is often little guidance about how to reconcile these criteria. Is compactness more important the contiguity? What about keeping communities of interest together? The biggest obstacle is “getting it right” the first time– getting a plan together that will hold up in court.
What sort of criteria should those in charge of redistricting use to determine districts?
The big four that the Supreme Court has emphasized are population equality, compactness, contiguity, and respect for political subdivisions. Of course, compliance with the Voting Rights Act is also critical. Beyond these, some states have imposed additional criteria, such as a desire for competitiveness, or keeping communities of interest together. The Supreme Court has also said that incumbency protection can be a legitimate state goal.
Each of these criteria leaves redistricters with significant leeway. There is no measure of compactness that has been agreed upon by courts. And as for contiguity, courts have endorsed “point contiguity” and even “water contiguity” in upholding districts. Goals of competitiveness and incumbency protection are obviously in tension with one another. And political subdivisions may or may not always reflect communities of interest.
So while there are plenty of criteria that redisticters can use to determine districts, there is little consensus on those that they should use and in what order.
If students want to learn more about redistricting, what are the best online resources?
One of the best resources is the National Conference of State Legislatures — the people responsible for doing the redistricting in most states.