New Jersey. Arizona. California. Michigan. While the rest of us enjoyed roast beef and champagne in the last few weeks of December, members of independent and bipartisan district reelection commissions in these states completed the work of drawing new congressional lines. In fact, by Tuesday of this week (when the New York City Advisory Commission is due to send the Legislature its final proposed congressional map), all but one of the nation’s New York City Congressional Commissions will be done with their work.
Advocates of good government have long advocated that commissions take on the task of redeploying state legislatures, arguing that the commissions map out serving the people over partisan interests. But now that we’ve seen their results, we can test this claim: have redistribution commissions lived up to the hype this cycle? In general, it’s a mixed bag: commissions have produced fairer maps than state legislatures, but not necessarily more competitive ones; They also failed to agree more than once.
By two common measures of card justice, Congressional cards issued by commissions (or courts that inherited failed commissions) were less biased than those issued by legislators. For example, of the six commission states with at least three congressional districts, five have a middle seat whose partisan leaning from FiveThirtyEight is within 3 percentage points of the state as a whole. (The exception is Colorado, where the middle seat is 5 points redder than the state.)
It’s even more noticeable when you look at the maps. efficiency gaps, which is a measure of which party has fewer “wasted” votes (i.e., votes that do not contribute to a candidate’s victory). All but one commission state with at least three congressional districts have an efficiency gap of 5 points or less, while the maps drawn by partisan actors are very Partisan. (So far, every Democratic-controlled state with at least three districts has an efficiency gap of D+13 or greater, while all but one Republican-controlled state with at least three districts has an efficiency gap of R+7 or greater.)
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The exception among commission states is New Jersey, whose map shows a D+16 efficiency gap, indicating a strong pro-democracy bias. But the New Jersey Commission is not exactly a model of impartiality. Twelve of its 13 members are selected directly by state legislatures or political parties (six from Democrats, six from Republicans), and after failing to agree on a 13th member last summer, the New Jersey Supreme Court voted in favor preferred candidate of the Democrats. The Commission finally (and predictably) 7-6 elected for a map drawn by the Commission’s Democrats.
Partisan fairness, however, is only one way to measure the quality of a card. Another factor is how quickly the map reacts to changing political winds (as measured by the number of competitive districts). And on this front, the performance of the commissions has been mediocre. Only 8 percent of the commission-enacted districts in this redistricting cycle (nine out of 109) have partisan leanings between D+5 and R+5, indicating that they are very competitive. This corresponds to the proportion of statutory districts that are very competitive: 8 percent (12 out of 159). In fairness, however, the number of competitive congressional districts has been declining for decades as polarization has increased – a trend that commissions alone cannot reverse. In addition, commissions could create a larger number something Competitive districts (partisan leanings between D+15 and R+15). Thirty-three percent of the counties passed by the commission (36 out of 109) were at least reasonably competitive by our definition, and that proportion was significantly higher than the 21 percent of counties passed by the legislature (33 out of 159).
But as the New Jersey commission demonstrated, a key lesson from the 2021-22 redistribution cycle was that not all redistribution commissions are created equal. Broadly speaking, there are four types of commissions: independent, political, non-partisan, and advisory. And of these, independent district redistribution commissions (those whose commissioners are not directly elected by politicians) have been the most successful this cycle. Insulated as much as possible from the pressures of partisanship, the nation’s four independent commissions (Arizona, California, Colorado, and Michigan) not only drew some of the finest maps of the cycle, but also completed their work without too much drama. Only in Arizona did tensions arise within the Commission bubble to the surface, and only after the map is drawn.
However, the same cannot be said of Connecticut, Ohio and Virginia. What do these states have in common? The politicians themselves are the commissioners, making them arguably the most partisan redistricting commissions in the country. Democrats and Republicans on the redistribution commissions of all three of these states have been unable to agree on a congressional card this cycle and refer the process to the next in line (the state supreme courts in Connecticut and Virginia, the legislature in Ohio).
What about commissions whose partisanship falls somewhere between these two extremes – those whose commissioners are directly elected by politicians but are not politicians themselves? Perhaps unsurprisingly, these bipartisan commissions have had a somewhat mixed record. On the one hand, the orders in Idaho and Montana went perfectly. (That said, I’m not sure their success tells us much. Idaho and Montana only have two congressional districts each, and it’s not too hard to draw a single line. Also, they’re both solid red states, which very likely two Republicans were up for election to the House no matter how the lines were drawn. If the stakes had been higher in those states, I’m not sure their commissions would have been as uneventful.)
On the other hand, Washington’s bipartisan commission nearly collapsed and burned à la politicians’ commissions, though the state Supreme Court ultimately bailed them out. The commission initially appeared close to the deadline to approve maps that had not yet been shared with the public (a violation of open gathering laws). However, the next day the commission announced that this was the case missed appointment within minutes and sent the map drawing process to the Washington Supreme Court. The court eventually ruled that the Commission “substantially fulfilled its mandate” and accepted the map drawn up by the Commission. (The map is still subject to minor revisions by the Washington Legislature, but it’s on track to become law by early February.) And finally, we’ve already talked about what happened to New Jersey’s bipartisan commission: Although they finished by their deadline, the process was acrimonious and did not result in a fair card.
Finally, advisory redistribution commissions — those who present cards to lawmakers who are not required to accept them — have also had a track record. Legislatures in Iowa and Maine eventually passed the maps proposed by their respective advisory commissions. In Iowa, however, the passed map featured a heavily Republican-leaning efficiency gap, and in Maine, a bipartisan majority of lawmakers had to approve the map, leaving the Democratic majority of the Legislature unable to push through their own proposal as Republican lawmakers in Iowa could have done. The maps that eventually passed in New Mexico and Utah also resembled one of the proposals made by each state commission, but in any case, that proposal was the black sheep of the bunch, the one most favored by the party in power. It also allegedly that the New York Legislature will reject any proposals made by that state’s commission. The governors of Maryland and Wisconsin also established ceremonial redistribution commissions to pressure their legislatures to draw fairer maps, but the legislatures were not even required to do so Consider their suggestions, so it is not surprising that these too were ignored.
Since gerrymandering has become a household term over the past decade, reformers have touted commission reallocation as the solution. As a result, some new redistribution commissions were introduced in nine states prior to last year. But the results of the 2021-22 reallocation process in commission states are a good reminder that commissions are not a panacea. It matters how they are assembled and how much power they are given – something to keep in mind the next time a new district commission is proposed in your state.