New Jersey. Arizona. California. Michigan. While the rest of us were enjoying roast beast and champagne during the last couple weeks of December, members of independent and bipartisan redistricting commissions in those states were completing the work of drawing new congressional lines. In fact, by Tuesday of this week (when New York’s advisory redistricting commission is due to send the legislature its final proposed congressional map), all but one of the congressional redistricting commissions in the country will be done with their work.
Good-government advocates have long advocated for commissions to take over the job of redistricting from state legislatures, arguing that the commissions produce maps that serve the people over partisan interests. But now that we’ve seen their output, we can test this claim: Have redistricting commissions lived up to the hype this cycle? In general, it’s a mixed bag: Commissions have produced fairer maps than state legislatures, but not necessarily more competitive ones; they also failed to come to an agreement on more than one occasion.
According to two common measures of map fairness, congressional maps enacted by commissions (or courts that took over from failed commissions) have been less biased than those that have emerged from legislatures. For instance, out of the six commission states with at least three congressional districts, five have a median seat whose FiveThirtyEight partisan lean is within 3 percentage points of the state’s as a whole. (The exception is Colorado, where the median seat is 5 points redder than the state.)
It’s even more striking when you go by the maps’ efficiency gaps, which is a measure of which party has fewer “wasted” votes (i.e., votes that don’t contribute toward a candidate winning). All but one commission state with at least three congressional districts has an efficiency gap of 5 points or fewer, whereas the maps drawn by partisan actors are very partisan. (So far, every Democratic-controlled state with at least three districts has an efficiency gap of D+13 or greater, while all but one Republican-controlled state with at least three districts has an efficiency gap of R+7 or greater.)
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The exception among commission states is New Jersey, whose map has a D+16 efficiency gap, indicating a strong pro-Democratic bias. But New Jersey’s commission is not exactly a model of nonpartisanship. Twelve of its 13 members are picked directly by state legislators or political parties (six by Democrats, six by Republicans), and after they failed to agree on a 13th member last summer, the New Jersey Supreme Court chose the Democrats’ preferred candidate. The commission eventually (and predictably) voted 7-6 for a map drawn by the commission’s Democrats.
However, partisan fairness is only one way of measuring a map’s quality. Another is how responsive the map is to shifting political winds (as measured by the number of competitive districts). And on that front, commissions’ performance was just so-so. Only 8 percent of commission-enacted districts in this redistricting cycle (nine out of 109) have partisan leans between D+5 and R+5, indicating they are highly competitive. That’s the same as the share of legislatively enacted districts that are highly competitive: 8 percent (12 out of 159). In fairness, though, the number of competitive congressional districts has been on the decline for decades, as polarization has gotten worse — a trend that commissions alone can’t reverse. In addition, commissions were able to create a larger number of somewhat competitive districts (partisan leans between D+15 and R+15). Thirty-three percent of commission-enacted districts (36 out of 109) were at least somewhat competitive by our definition, and this share was significantly more than the 21 percent of legislatively enacted districts (33 out of 159).
But as New Jersey’s commission demonstrated, one big lesson from the 2021-22 redistricting cycle has been that not all redistricting commissions are created equal. Broadly speaking, there are four kinds of commissions: independent, politician, bipartisan and advisory. And of these, independent redistricting commissions (those whose commissioners are not directly chosen by politicians) were the most successful this cycle. Insulated as much as possible from the pressures of partisanship, the nation’s four independent commissions (Arizona’s, California’s, Colorado’s and Michigan’s) not only drew some of the fairest maps of the cycle, but they also completed their work without too much drama. Only in Arizona did intra-commission tensions bubble to the surface, and only after the map had been drawn.
The same cannot be said of Connecticut, Ohio and Virginia, however. What do these states have in common? Politicians themselves are the commissioners, which arguably makes them the most partisan redistricting commissions in the country. Democrats and Republicans on the redistricting commissions of all three of these states failed to agree on a congressional map this cycle, kicking the process to the next entity in line (the state supreme courts in Connecticut and Virginia, the legislature in Ohio).
What about commissions whose level of partisanship is somewhere between these two extremes — those whose commissioners are directly chosen by politicians but are not politicians themselves? Perhaps unsurprisingly, these bipartisan commissions had a bit of a mixed record. On one hand, the commissions in Idaho and Montana went perfectly smoothly. (That said, I’m not sure their success tells us much of anything. Idaho and Montana have only two congressional districts each, and it’s not too hard to draw a single line. Plus, they are both solidly red states that were very likely to elect two Republicans each to the House no matter how the lines were drawn. If the stakes had been higher in these states, I’m not sure their commissions would have been so uneventful.)
On the other hand, Washington’s bipartisan commission very nearly crashed and burned à la the politician commissions, although the state Supreme Court ultimately bailed them out. The commission initially seemed to approve maps that had not yet been shared with the public (a violation of open-meetings laws) just before its deadline. However, the next day, the commission announced that it had missed the deadline by a matter of minutes, sending the map-drawing process to the Washington Supreme Court. The court eventually ruled that the commission had “substantially complied” with its mandate and accepted the map that the commission had drawn. (The map is still subject to small revisions from the Washington legislature, but it is on track to become law by early February.) And finally, we’ve already been over what happened with New Jersey’s bipartisan commission: Although it finished by its deadline, the process was acrimonious and did not produce a fair map.
Finally, advisory redistricting commissions — those that submit maps to legislatures that are under no obligation to accept them — also had a hit-or-miss record. Legislatures in Iowa and Maine did end up passing the maps proposed by their respective advisory commissions. However, in Iowa, the map that was passed had a heavily Republican-leaning efficiency gap, and in Maine, a bipartisan supermajority of legislators was required to approve the map, so the legislature’s Democratic majority would not have been able to force through their own proposal as Republican legislators could have done in Iowa. The maps eventually enacted in New Mexico and Utah were also similar to one of the proposals from each state’s commission, but in each case, that proposal was the black sheep of the bunch, the one that most favored the party in power. It also seems likely that the New York legislature is going to vote down all the proposals from that state’s commission. The governors of Maryland and Wisconsin also set up ceremonial redistricting commissions to pressure their legislatures into drawing fairer maps, but the legislatures weren’t even obligated to consider their proposals, so unsurprisingly those were ignored too.
Since gerrymandering became a household phrase over the past decade, reformers have touted redistricting commissions as its solution. As a result, new redistricting commissions of some kind were implemented in nine states ahead of last year. But the outcomes of the 2021-22 redistricting process in commission states are a good reminder that commissions are no panacea. It matters how they are assembled and how much power they are given — something to keep in mind the next time a redistricting commission is proposed in your state.