The United States is in the middle of a once-in-a-decade process: redistricting. And although it’s early yet — 19 states aren’t expected to finalize their maps until next year — a number of states have proposed maps, and there are debates happening all across the country over which ones to pass. Six states have finalized maps.1
But Americans aren’t necessarily confident that the process will be a fair one. Just 16 percent of U.S. adults said they thought their states’ congressional maps would be drawn fairly, while 44 percent said they thought the maps would be drawn unfairly, per an August YouGov/Economist poll. Another 40 percent of adults said they were unsure if the maps will be fair. That might be one reason why independent commissions, which aim to empower ordinary citizens to draw map lines, have grown in use since the last redistricting cycle. In that same YouGov/Economist poll, 50 percent of Americans said they thought independent commissions should be responsible for the redistricting process in their state.
However, it’s unclear whether independent commissions will be enough to help build trust in the redistricting process. For some, the redistricting process is simply “the most political activity in American politics,” according to Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College and author of “Redistricting and Gerrymandering in North Carolina: Battlelines in the Tar Heel State.”
And Bitzer doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.
Many Americans think maps that intentionally favor one party is a serious issue in U.S. elections. According to an AP-NORC poll conducted in March, 67 percent of Americans thought that states drawing such maps was a “major problem.” In fact, respondents to that survey thought gerrymandering was a bigger problem than disenfranchisement or voter fraud.
Redistricting has been a problem in a number of states, to the extent that the court has had to intervene. According to the nonpartisan redistricting website All About Redistricting, the courts rejected all or part of the maps in five states and drew new maps in 12 other states. And there is already one lawsuit pending this year.
Related: What Redistricting Looks Like In Every State Read more. »
In states like North Carolina, where gerrymandering has particularly been an issue, trust in the redistricting process is extremely low. In the past decade, the state has had to draw its congressional districts three different times. After the initial drawing in 2011, the courts found in a 2016 ruling that the state’s map had been racially gerrymandered to disadvantage Black voters in the state, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court. Following the lower court’s decision, Public Policy Polling found in a 2017 survey that 86 percent of North Carolina voters were either “somewhat” or “very” concerned about the effect of partisan politics on the state’s maps. Then, in 2019, a state court panel threw out North Carolina’s 2016 map because it was ruled a partisan gerrymander that gave Republicans an upper hand.
Bitzer stressed that perceptions of fairness in states like North Carolina have a lot to do with the political nature of the process. “Then you also add in the hyper-partisanship, the intense polarization and the lack of trust from one side of the political aisle to the other — I think all of those factors come together and probably make us even more intensely cynical, more intensely questioning the process of redistricting.”
Even North Carolina’s third map, drawn ahead of the 2020 election, wasn’t entirely fair — we found in our analysis, for instance, that the median district in the state was still 7 points more Republican-leaning than the state as a whole.
Why ensuring a fair map is so hard
It’s difficult, though, for states like North Carolina to rectify unfair maps. That’s because in 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering is a political question that the federal courts can’t resolve. This has meant that states get to determine whether a map is fair or unfair — and that process can vary a lot depending on the state.
For instance, a panel of federal judges threw out a partisan gerrymandering case in Wisconsin involving the state’s 2011 map following the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision, leaving that map in place. Wisconsin is now, of course, redrawing its map, but given that the government is divided — the governor is a Democrat, but Republicans control the state legislature — and there are already two lawsuits over the redistricting process, it’s possible that the courts will need to draw the lines if Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on a map.
It’s why in some states, voters are trying to address redistricting themselves in the form of independent redistricting commissions.
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Independent commissions are designed to keep partisan politics out of the redistricting process by putting the power to draw lines in the hands of ordinary citizens — although in some states, these commissions comprise a bipartisan group of lawmakers. And research has found that independent commissions can improve voters’ trust in the redistricting process. For instance, researchers at the University of Southern California found that when California voters were told the state uses independent commissions (which it does) and the process was explained to them, 73 percent of respondents thought the process was fair. But when they were told the state legislature draws the lines (which it doesn’t) just 32 percent thought the process was fair.
“[T]he ability to explain to voters how [commissions] actually work might improve their perceptions of trust, and it definitely improves their perceptions of fairness,” said Christian Grose, a political science professor at USC and co-author of the paper.
In states like Colorado and Michigan, voters led the charge in 2018 for independent redistricting commissions by approving the creation of such bodies by resounding margins: In Colorado, 71 percent of voters supported the commission, and in Michigan, 61 percent supported the commission.
Yet it’s possible that independent commissions aren’t a panacea for the lack of faith in the redistricting process. In March, just 41 percent of Michigan voters said they have a positive view of the state’s commission, according to a survey conducted the Glengariff Group. And the Colorado commission’s map will likely displease Democrats, as it opens the possibility of a 4-4 Democratic-Republican seat split in a state that has trended reliably blue in recent years — even though the map is better than the old map in that it encourages more competitive elections.
It’s a risk The Atlantic’s Russell Berman pointed out earlier this month. Democrats, in particular, have long advocated for more independent commissions, but better governance is often at odds with political gain. And of course, Republicans will draw 2.5 times as many maps as Democrats in the 2020 redistricting cycle. Meanwhile, states with independent commissions or split partisan control will be responsible for drawing lines in just 38 percent of districts. But even if the playing field were more level, it’s not clear that voters would trust the redistricting process more.
As Bitzer told me, voters’ perceptions of a fair map often boils down to their own partisan leanings.
“They will know if something is fair or unfair by how many Republicans get elected, how many Democrats get elected and what their political party affiliations [are],” Bitzer said.