Where do you draw the lines?

Washington Post | June 18, 2018

This redistricting process is as old as the republic, enshrined in the Constitution. It has been controversial from the start and vulnerable to distortion. Politicians with the power to draw the lines have done so to gain advantage — whether that meant ensuring that incumbents were reelected or that the political party in power produced districts that gave them a disproportionate share of the seats.


This term, the Supreme Court considered the role of partisanship. But is there a fair and equitable way to draw these district lines? Some states, California being the biggest, have decided the only way to produce fairer lines is to try to take politicians out of the process.

Every redistricting cycle has produced oddly shaped districts, with lines snaking here and there across counties and neighborhoods. To the naked eye, there is no logic to the lines. To those who have drawn them, they are designed to give somebody, some group or some party an advantage, or to assure that racial minorities receive adequate representation.

In years past, when Democrats controlled state legislatures and governor’s mansions, they did so. In the past decade, as Republicans have gained power in many more states, they have done the same. Democrats now say, as Republicans did earlier, that current congressional district boundaries make it more difficult for them to win a majority of the 435 House districts.

These gerrymandered districts have become easier to draw with the advent of more computing power and more-sophisticated databases. In the past two decades, there have been more-egregious examples of gerrymandered districts.

Beginning many years ago, some states began to look for ways to put the power in the hands of more-independent bodies or citizens, although most still involved politicians in the process. A decade ago, California took a radical step by turning over the entire process to a handful of ordinary citizens. Arizona has a similar model. The goal was to take pure politics out of the process and end the protection of incumbents.

Even under the best of circumstances, drawing lines is devilishly difficult. Every choice involves a tradeoff, and it is virtually impossible to fully remove politics from the process. There are always winners and losers in redistricting. In the end, an individual, group or neighborhood could feel like they lost out. That was the challenge faced by the 14 California citizens selected to form the independent commission. They quickly learned that even without overt partisanship and with notably idealistic goals, the decisions they were making were more difficult than they had imagined.

View Original Publication: Washington Post