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At Issue: Redistricting Reform

Most people would agree that today’s political environment is characterized by open hostility and increasing polarization between Republicans and Democrats. One contributing factor is the ability of state legislative majorities – of both parties – to draw district boundaries designed to favor their party’s candidates. Gerrymandering, as it is called, has become a matter of routine in legislatures around the country and is consistent with the old saying, “to the victor go the spoils.”

The Boston Gazette first used the term gerrymandering in 1812 as a response to the redrawn state Senate district lines under Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry. Gerrymandering is a combination of his name and the salamander shape of many districts. The practice actually dates back to the founding of the Republic, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

More recently, geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology allows legislative committees to draw these boundaries with laser-like precision. That can be helpful, but it also makes it much easier to draw districts that are packed with “your” voters and/or stripped of “their” voters. So when districts are redrawn these days, they are much more likely to be either safe Republican or safe Democratic districts. Inevitably, they are also more ideologically extreme and less competitive.

As legislatures become more polarized, there is a disincentive to work with the other party, making politics more divisive and politicians less likely to reach consensus.

Georgia has had its share of gerrymandering controversies. After the 2000 census, Democratic Party leadership in the General Assembly drew highly partisan maps. Some believed race was used as a primary data point in an effort to retain the party’s legislative majority. Those maps were thrown out by a federal court. When the Republican Party majority emerged in the mid-2000s, its leaders relied on many of the same tactics of their Democratic predecessors, including mid-decade redistricting and highly partisan district lines.

Such partisan redistricting has led to calls in Georgia – and around the country – for the reform of legislative-dominated redistricting. The best known of these reform measures, and one that has been under discussion in the Peach State, would have U.S. House and state legislative districts drawn by state-level independent non-partisan commissions. This proposal has been met with bipartisan support and has been adopted in 13 states.

When I served on the board of Common Cause Georgia from 2009 to 2013, back when it was a less partisan group, this was one of the issues I worked on. Democrats, Republicans and Independents on the board came together to produce research, testify at legislative hearings and work with individual legislators to advance the case for an independent commission before the 2020 census.

Importantly, our proposal was a non-partisan one. Part of our case rested on the realization that as Georgia becomes more politically competitive, it is in the interest of both political parties to have redistricting performed by an independent commission.

Into this picture now step former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez. Since the presidential election, these and other national Democratic Party leaders have embraced the issue of redistricting with inflammatory partisan rhetoric, calling it the best hope for rolling back Republican gains in state legislatures.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by Holder and former President Barack Obama, has begun recruiting staff and identifying key races in preparation for elections in 2018 and beyond. The group’s stated goal is to redraw House district lines in states across the country to better favor Democratic candidates.

So national Democrats, reeling from historic election losses in 2016, have seized on redistricting to help explain their setbacks and are using it as a vehicle to climb back to power. Georgia’s history of voting rights controversies and redistricting lawsuits makes the state a particularly inviting target. Unfortunately, this takes what should be a bipartisan issue and makes it an explicitly partisan one – and very likely does great damage to independent, bipartisan efforts to enact needed reforms at the state level.

Fixing these redistricting issues may sound good in theory, however let’s move forward with caution. If the main goal of the proposed commission is simply a partisan power grab, it may not merit our support.

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