Nonprofits Are Making a Major Impact on Redistricting Reform

3/9/2010

Redistricting reform efforts have emerged as a key issue that could significantly impact our democracy in 2010 and beyond. While it does not appear that there will be nationwide redistricting reform, efforts are moving forward in several states. Nonprofits have taken a lead role in advocating for a process that is independent, nonpartisan, and fair while also ensuring that their constituencies' interests are represented.

Americans for Redistricting Reform (ARR) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that bills itself as "committed to raising public awareness of redistricting abuses and promoting solutions that benefit voters and strengthen our democracy." Its website allows visitors to learn about redistricting reform efforts in jurisdictions across the country. The site also contains fact sheets, court cases, research studies, and state and federal legislation on redistricting reform efforts.

ARR was launched by the Campaign Legal Center and includes major nonprofit organizations as advisory committee members, including the Brennan Center for Justice, the Campaign Legal Center, the Committee for Economic Development, Common Cause, Fair Vote, the League of Women Voters, the Reform Institute, the Republican Main Street Partnership, and U.S. PIRG.

According to the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center (CLC), ARR and its advisory committee members believe that there are two key elements necessary for redistricting reform. "The first is changing the procedures that states use to draw legislative districts, including the establishment of independent commissions, transparency and effective opportunity for participation by all segments of the general public. The second is establishing uniformly accepted standards for how to draw and evaluate districts, including adherence to the commands of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, respect for political subdivisions and communities of interest, competitiveness, partisan fairness, and compactness."

ARR has created several fact sheets on redistricting reform efforts, including one titled "Notable Redistricting Efforts in the States." This fact sheet focuses on efforts in Florida, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Kansas, and Texas.

In Florida, the state legislature controls both congressional and state redistricting decisions. These decisions usually result in the creation or maintenance of districts that avoid competition for incumbents.

A set of state constitutional amendments, proposed by FairDistrictsFlorida.org, would prevent legislative districts from being "drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party" or to "deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice." The amendments would also require legislative districts to be "contiguous" and "compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries." The slate of proposed amendments will be on the November 2010 ballot in Florida.

ARR has created a separate fact sheet on Proposition 11, which in 2008 "amended the California Constitution to transfer responsibility for drawing district lines for legislative seats from the Legislature to a new 14 member Citizens Redistricting Commission," according to ARR. Nonprofit organizations were on both sides of the Proposition 11 debate, and many of the organizations that took opposite views on the ballot measure are traditional allies.

"Supporters say the proposition’s purpose was to create a more transparent, inclusive and representative process that would be responsive to the testimony of communities and neighborhoods," according to ARR. Supporters include California Common Cause, AARP, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters of California, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California NAACP, the California Police Chiefs Association, and the ACLU of Southern California.

Opponents of Proposition 11 believe that it "will give power to bureaucrats who will select the redistricting commission based on a partisan agenda. Opponents also have expressed concern that this measure does not ensure that the 14 member independent commission will reflect the gender, racial, or geographic diversity of the state’s 36 million people, or of the current legislative body." Opponents include the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

The redistricting commission will "begin drawing lines after the 2010 Census is conducted. The first election under a reformed system of drawing legislative districts in California will be held in 2012," according to ARR. The initiative also "applies new standards to congressional redistricting, but the power to draw congressional lines will remain with the legislature."

The League of Women Voters (LWV) has also played a major role in redistricting reform efforts and raising awareness of the issue in the states. In New York, LWV hosted a forum on redistricting with the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. During the forum, one of the panelists, Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor and director of the SUNY New Paltz Center for Regional Research, Education and Outreach, stated that an independent panel should handle redistricting, according to the Jamestown Post-Journal.

New York State Assemblyman Bill Parment (D-North Harmony), who was also a panelist, told the Post-Journal that "[o]bviously, the legislature is suspect because we have an interest in the outcome, and so people like the League of Women Voters and others who, I guess, would probably not object to being called good government groups, favor a panel being independent from the legislature."

Parment, however, expressed why he believes that the legislature, not an independent panel, is the body best suited to handle redistricting issues. The "people who know the most about their communities and have been chosen by their communities to represent them are the same ones that are best positioned to create a plan for redistricting that reflects community interests and concerns. If we didn't fight for our communities in redistricting, we would be held in very low esteem, I think, by the public," Parment said.

LWV has also been active in other states. "In Ohio, the league worked with Democratic Secretary of State and Senate candidate Jennifer Brunner to run a contest last year allowing citizens to submit redistricting plans," according to CongressDaily. In Illinois, LWV "has teamed with good government groups to attempt to place the question of creating an independent redistricting commission" on the ballot in November, the subscription-only publication noted. According to the same article, LWV's referendum in Illinois "would only apply to state legislative districts, not congressional seats."