Should legislators choose which voters should vote for them? Or is that a conflict of interest and should some other method be used? For me, it’s a “yes” to the latter question. Here are some reasons why.
Legislators mostly defend the current practice of drawing their own districts with “Those elected are the best to choose what their district encompasses as they know their district best.” And that “Legislators have the most experience in redistricting because they’ve done it before.”
I beg to differ.
There are two sets of people who commonly have campaigned in a district: winners and losers. So, while winners say they are best to judge, a better argument could be said of the losers, as they know more about structural disadvantages they might face.
Secondly, current legislators cannot point to experience either.
I counted only 13 out of 100 members of the West Virginia House of Delegates who have ever been through redistricting. Similarly, only 10 of the 34 members of the state Senate have participated in the practice. So, current members of the Legislature are inexperienced in redistricting.
What’s better? An independent commission structured along the lines of the Iowa plan.
There, the majority and minority leader of each chamber appoints two members to a redistricting commission. These appointees face restrictions as they, or any member of their immediate family, cannot be elected officials nor be employed by one. Neither can they be a current member of a party’s executive committee. Other conditions may be imposed, as well.
Remember, redistricting is a political process; it’s not nonpolitical. Thus, we need people who are politically aware, but not dependent upon the outcome.
These four members then select a fifth member by majority vote, meaning at least one or more commissioners must vote for a commissioner of another party, giving it a true bipartisan essence.
This commission then supervises the legislative staff’s map-drawing activities. Furthermore, the commission prevents party registration totals or the residences of office holders from influencing the district boundaries.
Commissioners may only consider compactness of districts, contiguous areas, equal population and preserving existing political boundaries as much as possible (county and city boundaries, for instance). Other conditions may be imposed by the legislature.
Under the Iowa model, once complete, maps are presented to the legislature for an up or down vote. If rejected, the map drawers start over. The legislators have no idea whether the next map will be better or worse for them, although notes may be appended for the map creators.
The legislature then gets three tries. If rejected three times, the Iowa map goes to their Supreme Court, which then draws districts that the legislature must accept.
Compare this process with West Virginia.
According to a report released this month by the Institute of Southern Studies, which shows a “Gerrymandering Threat Index” for all 50 states, West Virginia is at high risk of having its legislative election districts politically rigged for the next decade. In West Virginia, they found:
- Politicians control how districts are drawn. The Legislature may decide by simple majority as to what voters are included in which districts, subject to a gubernatorial veto. Even then, the governor’s veto may be overridden with a simple majority vote.
- Districts may be drawn in secret. No public hearings are required. In the 2011 redistricting, our state Senate held nine informal meetings while the House of Delegates held none.
- Election maps may be rigged for partisan gain. There are no checks in our process that prevent purely partisan maps. Republicans hold 77% of the House of Delegates and 68% of the Senate, plus the governorship.
- Overall, legal standards by which districts are drawn are not well defined in West Virginia. Because of these weak legal standards, results of the current process are hard to challenge in court.
Redistricting is at the heart of our democracy. Should it be left up to those who benefit to create districts, or should we use another process? Let’s use another process.