New cutting commissions split along partisan lines

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Instead, cooperation has proven elusive.

In New York City, Ohio and Virginia, the commissions meeting for the first time this year have split into partisan camps to develop competing slicing maps based on the 2020 census data. The divisions have disappointed some activists who have supported reforms and underscored how difficult it can be to purge politics from the decade-long process of realigning US and state House legislative seat boundaries.

As a result, the new Republican-led Ohio House and Senate districts will always favor the GOP. The Democrats who control New York could always draw maps as they please. And a potential deadlock in Virginia could eventually send the process back to court.

“It’s probably predictable that this is sort of the way things turned out,” said Alex Keena, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University who has analyzed redistribution and gerrymandering.

Throughout most of American history, redistribution has been handled by lawmakers and state governors who are pressured to draw lines in favor of their own parties. But as public attention to gerrymandering has grown over the past decades, voters in a growing number of states have turned the task over to special commissions.

Some committees, such as those in Arizona, California, Colorado and Michigan, are made up only of citizens who have the final say on which maps to adopt. But others, such as in Ohio and Virginia, include politicians among their membership or require their cards to be submitted to the legislature for final approval, as is the case in New York, Virginia, and Utah.

If the New York Democrat-led legislature rejects the work of the new commission (made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and two independents), then lawmakers can draft and adopt their own redistribution plans.

The prospects for that heightened last week, when Democrats and Republicans on the committee failed to come to an agreement and instead released competing versions of new maps for the U.S. House, the State Senate and State Assembly.

State Republican Party Chairman Nick Langworthy called Democratic cards “wildly gerrymandered” and accused Democratic commissioners of refusing to compromise.

State Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs countered that there was no reason to “bend over backwards” to try to attract as many Republican seats as possible. He added: “We will be fair, but up to a point.”

The division of the commission frustrated Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York. The organization supported the 2014 voting measure that created the commission and encouraged people to testify at the panel’s public hearings this year.

“It almost sounds like a slap in the face to us and to all those people who have spent time going out and submitting comments – have taken time in their daily lives to do so – when it is very obvious that there is no had no respect for any of those comments, ”Wilson said.

Frustration is also mounting in Ohio, where a commission dominated by Republican elected officials voted last week to pass a legislative redistribution plan for the state they preferred. Because the plan had no Democratic backing, the state constitution limits it to four years.

Democrats on the panel called the cards unfair. But Republican Senate Speaker Matt Huffman said vested interests were pressuring Democrats not to support a redistribution plan that could have lasted the next decade.

Huffman said the new map would likely produce 62 Republican seats in the Ohio House and 23 in the Senate – down just a few seats in each chamber from the GOP’s current qualified majorities. Experts estimate the state’s voters are more evenly divided, around 54% Republicans to 46% Democrats.

The partisan card arrived despite more than a dozen public hearings dominated by testimony from Ohio residents who said the current gerrymandered cards had left them out.

“Too many of us have had no say in who represents us and have watched helplessly as laws are passed that hurt our families and ignore our needs,” said Areege Hammad, of CAIR-Ohio, an organization for the defense of the civil rights of Muslims.

She said the neighborhood around the Islamic Center of Cleveland, one of the region’s largest Muslim populations, is divided into several congressional and state palace districts.

“Because of the way the districts are drawn, our elected officials have no incentive to be receptive, responsive or accessible to us or our concerns,” she said.

Michigan’s Citizen Redistribution Commission released its first draft of a new US Senate and House map last week and is still working on a State House map. He plans to garner more public comment on his proposals with the aim of finalizing the cards by the end of the year – exceeding the November 1 deadline set in the constitutional amendment approved by voters.

But Michigan’s panel of four Democrats, four Republicans and five Independents has so far avoided turning into partisan camps. One reason may be that the Michigan commission does not include any politicians and no capacity for the Republican-led legislature to override its work, Keena said.

In Virginia, two separate cartographers hired for Democrats and Republicans are due to submit rival plans for consideration next week by the 16-member commission, which includes four lawmakers and four citizens from each major party. If the commission can’t come to an agreement – or if the Democratic-led General Assembly rejects its cards – the decision will rest with the state’s Supreme Court, which is dominated by GOP-appointed judges.

How commissioners react to the two maps will determine whether the reform effort works, said Liz White, executive director of OneVirginia2021, which backed last year’s voting measure creating the commission. She hopes the panelists will find a way to “marry” the two proposals.

“There is certainly a concern that two balanced parties end up at an impasse,” White said. “The hope is really that the citizens are there to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Even if the commission is deadlocked, the new process could still be seen as an improvement over the previous one, as the public can see deliberations and divisions that might otherwise have been held behind closed doors, said Keena, of Virginia Commonwealth.

“We’re going to be able to come back to that kind of experience and see what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “I hope this will lead to better reforms in the future.”

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Lieb reported from Jefferson City, Missouri. Associated Press editors Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, and Marina Villeneuve in Albany, New York, contributed to this report.


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