Last month, the Census Bureau released population data that determined which states will gain and lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next ten years because of our country’s changing population.
The Census Bureau experienced many challenges in 2020, including a deadly pandemic severely limiting in-person counting and the previous administration’s attempt to include a citizenship question designed to limit Latinx participation. The resulting delay in data delivery means states will have less time than ever to draw new maps this cycle.
The redistricting process, which will happen in every state this fall, is complicated even in the best of times. Every state follows different rules when drawing their maps. In some states, the legislature controls the process, and in others, bipartisan commissions run the show. Regardless of who the mapmakers are, every state should include input from the public in the redistricting process.
However, this year’s compressed timeline means there will be less opportunity for decision makers to hear from communities and, more importantly, less time for them to take that input into account.
While even states that are not gaining or losing representation in Washington are required to redraw maps this year, those states losing seats in Congress will have to absorb their communities into fewer districts. Less time to complete the process means a risk of not hearing the voices of those most directly impacted by the new maps. Without an open and transparent process—and if history and hyper-partisanship is any indicator—there is little doubt that the current decision makers will work to maintain power for themselves or their party when drawing the maps.
Redistricting is not something many Americans think about, but the redistricting process has a direct effect on everyone’s lives for the next decade and impacts every single issue we care about. It is one of the most critical ways to ensure the integrity of our democracy, yet there is no standard for how it should be done across our country.
History shows us that this leeway silences many voices for decades at a time—and those disenfranchised voices are disproportionately voices of color. Standardizing the criteria for map drawing is a social justice issue, a climate justice issue, an education issue, a health care issue, and an immigration issue. The process touches many more critical concerns that impact our daily lives, including infrastructure and the level of emergency response preparedness in our neighborhoods.
The solution to many of the problems of redistricting lies in independent redistricting commissions.
For example, California has an independent redistricting process to prevent partisan gerrymandering. Politicians of both parties in the Golden State have worked with the public to build trust and include communities in the process. This year, California is one of the states losing a seat in Congress. But because their process is nonpartisan and transparent, California residents can trust that their community interests will be heard.
In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s independent redistricting commission. This was a major victory for voters and citizen-led democracy because it was the will of the people for the independent commission to have control over redistricting—not their state legislature.
The fight for fair and transparent maps has been a long-time priority for the League of Women Voters. For decades, our Leagues have played an important role in the redistricting process at the state level, always advocating for independent redistricting commissions.
In the 2011 redistricting cycle, political leaders in Pennsylvania drew congressional maps which divided the state into 28 districts, splitting up communities of interest. The League challenged the extremely gerrymandered Pennsylvania district maps, and ultimately these maps were redrawn after the Supreme Court blocked Pennsylvania Republicans’ attempt to obstruct the redrawing of the maps in 2018. This victory not only created fair districts in Pennsylvania, but it also allowed voters’ voices to be heard in the 2018 midterm elections. As a result, the state’s elected officials better reflected the political and demographic composition of the state.
In 2019, the League was a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Rucho v. LWV of North Carolina, a case challenging the partisan redistricting in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court failed to establish a standard for when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far. This redistricting cycle will be the first where partisan gerrymandering is not checked by federal courts.
The League responded to this ruling by launching our redistricting reform program, People Powered Fair Maps. Since the start of the program, we have engaged all 50 states and the District of Columbia to work for fairer maps, held over 2000 events, engaged over 1200 partners, and held over 3500 stakeholder meetings related to the map-drawing process, connecting over one million people to redistricting. But the League cannot improve redistricting alone, and so we joined a diverse coalition of national and regional groups to ensure that all voices are included this redistricting cycle.
The best way to guarantee that maps are drawn equitably is by engaging the communities who are impacted the most by unfair maps and putting the map-drawing power in the hands of independent commissions—not politicians.
State-by-state litigation has had a demonstrable impact and created fairer processes. But the only way to ensure that every state follows the same rules, includes community input, and creates a nonpartisan system is through federal legislation. Congress has the opportunity and the power to establish fair and consistent redistricting standards for the whole country. The For the People Act does just that. It is the solution we need this year.
With the 2022 midterm elections on the horizon, ensuring maps are drawn fairly in 2021 will protect our elections next year and for the next decade.
Virginia Kase is the CEO of the League of Women Voters of the United States.