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Reform, interrupted: The new mapmakers mainly face the old partisan rules

By Sara Swann, The Fulcrum on

Published in News & Features

Next year's redistricting landscape is, at best, a mixed bag for good-governance advocates. Although the mapmaking process has become fairer and less politicized in a handful of states over the past decade, partisan gerrymandering will still have a profound impact on representation across most of the country.

Democrats had high hopes of taking back enough power in state legislatures to have close to parity in the line drawing with Republicans, but they were totally shut down on Election Day. At the same time, while Virginians voted to bleed politics out of the process, Missourians voted to push their state the opposite way. And proposals to reform the system in six states died because they could not get on the ballot, yet another consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

The result is a power dynamic for the next drawing of congressional and legislative boundaries that's only marginally different from a decade ago. The two parties will retain control over the process in 39 states, just three fewer than last time. And the GOP will run the table in twice as many states again, with only a hair less dominance over the Democrats than in 2011.

It is a far cry from a central aspiration of the democracy reform movement, which has a mantra about what it will take to fix the system: Voters must be able to pick their politicians instead of the other way around. And that can't happen if elected officials have the power to use contorted cartography to ensconce themselves in power for 10 years at a time.

"For those who oppose gerrymandering, we have our work cut out for us," said Alex Tausanovitch of the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank that advocates for redistricting by panels of political independents. "Strong reform is still only in a handful of states, so we have a long way to go."

For such groups, the year's singular highlight was in Virginia — although the measure that secured 66% this fall in a statewide vote falls short of what advocates are striving for.


The state has done redistricting the traditional way, through the legislative process, where partisan power and lawmaker self-preservation are paramount. From now on, the first crack at drawing the maps, for the General Assembly and 11 congressional districts, will go to a bipartisan panel of eight citizens and eight legislators.

But the maps need three-fourths majorities for approval — a high hurdle to assure they'd have some support from both Republicans and Democrats, and politicians and lay people, but also raising the possibility of deadlock. And if that happens the mapmaking gets reassigned to the state Supreme Court, whose justices are chosen by the Legislature. (The court is now dominated by conservatives although the elected branches in Richmond are Democratic.)

While Virginia moved toward redistricting reform this fall, Missouri moved away from it.

Voters narrowly decided to abandon an innovation they approved just two years earlier: creating the new post of nonpartisan state demographer with the assignment of drawing lines that promote partisan fairness and electoral competitiveness. Instead, legislative boundaries will probably be set by GOP-majority state courts (because the threshold for adoption by bipartisan panels is impossibly high) and the congressional lines by the GOP-run General Assembly.


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