When Democrats took back the House of Representatives last year, they wasted no time putting together a bill to address political corruption in the United States.
On Jan. 3, 2019, the House introduced H.R. 1, the “For the People Act.” The bill passed the House in March, but has since languished in the Senate.
A portion of the bill tackles gerrymandering, a partisan practice dating back to the 1800’s. It has led to politically unbalanced voting districts that concentrate certain voters in areas of the state to protect the power of one party. Both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of it.
Solving The Problem
When it comes to determining congressional seats, the bill requires each state to institute an independent redistricting commission to create its district maps.
The commissions must be nonpartisan and made up of 15 members — five of whom belong to the majority party in the state, five belonging to the minority party, and five Independents.
“I think, more importantly, in addition to using commissions, there’s a uniform set of rules that states will be required to use for drawing maps, which is a big thing because it creates a level playing field,” said Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Right now, each state has laws to decide how it draws district maps, leading in some states to congressional districts favoring one party and/or actively disenfranchising minority voters.
Under the current system, Li said, there’s often resistance to reform because it takes place on a state-by-state basis through state legislatures.
“Oftentimes the argument you have is, ‘Well, why should Illinois fix its process if Texas isn’t going to [fix] its?'” he said.
Having one federal law ensuring everyone plays by the same rules bypasses that argument, Li said.
There’s also language to ensure the state’s demographics are properly represented. Commission members are supposed to be from diverse racial, ethnic, economic and gender backgrounds, as well as diverse areas of the state.
Rules also lay out who can be on commissions and how they are selected. There are measures to ensure that members of the public applying for a seat on the commission can’t be influenced by those who hold public office, residents running for election, party officeholders or lobbyists.
Many reform groups see redistricting as an important step toward making fair elections a reality.
According to Fairvote.org, a nonpartisan group pushing for electoral reforms, “Those engaged in gerrymandering rely heavily on winner-take-all voting rules. That is, when 51% of voters earn 100% of representation, those drawing districts can pack, stack and crack the population in order to make some votes count to their full potential and waste other votes.”
In one section, the bill sets rules for how redistricting is supposed to work and it specifies that districts should comply with the Constitution and Voting Rights Act of 1965. H.R. 1 also states districts should keep neighborhoods, political subdivisions and communities of interest together.
Changing The Gerrymandering Fight
Because H.R. 1 provides a framework and puts fair districting practices into one federal statute, it ensures all states adopt the same set of rules.
Under current law, if a resident wanted to challenge their state’s districting practices in court, they often have to rely on different parts of the Constitution — like the Fourteenth Amendment — to make their claims.
With a law like H.R. 1, which bans partisan gerrymandering, voters could use the legislation as a basis for their legal challenges.
Li said evidence showed gerrymandering decreased with independent commissions. In case it would still occur, H.R. 1 provides another path to challenge the practice, forcing courts to prioritize those cases.
As a federal law, the Supreme Court would have to address gerrymandering instead of leaving it up to states, as it ruled this summer.
There also are measures to ensure the map drawing process happens in public, with the public’s input, for transparency purposes. Suggested maps, and the data used to make them, would be shared on a website for people to review and comment on.
Iowa’s System Is Nonpartisan
Some states already run nonpartisan redistricting processes. Iowa is one of them, often held up as a model of fairness.
Rep. Abby Finkenauer wrote an amendment to the “For the People Act” allowing Iowa to keep its system of redistricting.
“Republicans and Democrats have disagreed on a lot, but we have always come together on our system for drawing fair districts,” she said in a press release. “In Iowa, we make sure our leaders are accountable to the people who elected them – and that’s something always worth fighting for.”
Since 1980, the state has used redistricting plans devised by a nonpartisan research group called the Legislative Services Agency. The group is subject to specific guidelines and when there’s a conflict, there’s a bipartisan commission the LSA consults.
The LSA’s recommended districts are voted on by the state legislature.
As long as Iowa sticks to its model, H.R. 1’s requirement for independent commissioners wouldn’t apply.
How it Helps Democracy
By explicitly banning partisan gerrymandering and making the process of redistricting more transparent, accessible and fair, the “For the People Act” would strengthen democracy in the United States.
“We know from experience that states with independent commissions draw maps that are much more balanced and much fairer. If for no other reason than you only have extreme gerrymandering where one party controls all of the process,” Li said. “H.R. 1 gives everybody, including Independents, a seat at the table, and requires support from Democrats, Republicans and Independents in order to pass a map.”
By Nikoel Hytrek