The movement to take politics out of setting legislative district boundaries seemed to suffer a grievous, and perhaps even mortal, blow this spring when the Supreme Court passed up three chances to declare partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional.
But it turns out that reports of its death are exaggerated. As federal courts dither over how to resolve the issue, activists have begun tackling it state by state at the grass roots.
In Michigan, a proposed constitutional amendment to end gerrymandering, written and promoted by a nonpartisan group called Voters Not Politicians, will be on the ballot in November, unless blocked by a court challenge that has so far fallen short. So many Michiganders signed petitions to bring the measure to a vote — 110,000 more than state law requires — that the group ended its signature campaign 70 days short of the six months allowed.
In Missouri, another nonpartisan group called Clean Missouri needed 180,000 signatures to get its anti-gerrymander initiative on the ballot; it collected 346,000. Final certification is expected next month.
In Utah, a group called Better Boundaries collected 190,000 signatures, 75,000 more than were required, to place its proposition to end gerrymanders on the November ballot.
And in Colorado, both the Democratic-run state House and the Republican-run Senate voted unanimously in May to place two proposals on the November ballot that would shift the duty to draw state legislative and congressional districts away from lawmakers and into the hands of independent redistricting commissions.
Those proposals join another, in Ohio, that became law in May. The state legislature there put a measure to curb partisan gerrymandering of the state’s congressional districts on the ballot for the state’s May 8 primary, after it became apparent that a citizens’ campaign for an even tougher measure was likely to succeed. Ohioans approved the legislature’s version by a three-to-one margin.
“It’s the best reform map we’ve seen in decades,” said Joshua Silver, the chief executive officer of the clean-government advocacy group Represent.Us, which has offered support to all five initiative campaigns.
It is remarkable that five states are holding ballot measures on the issue in a single year; only five had taken them up over the entire preceding decade.
Just as unusual is how little opposition the measures are meeting, at least so far. Beyond Michigan, where the state Chamber of Commerce and the Republican attorney general are trying to block the anti-gerrymandering initiative, organized resistance to the proposals has been scant.
Mr. Silver compares the change in public opinion on gerrymandering — the practice of drawing maps to disproportionately favor one party — to the shifts on other issues like gay marriage, where voters’ views were often shown to be changing far faster than national political dogma.
In the past, only a handful of states — Idaho, Iowa and Arizona among them — embraced genuinely nonpartisan redistricting, while most states continued to treat mapmaking as the privilege of the party in power.
Nationally, Republicans have denounced attacks on gerrymanders as assaults on their political power — understandably so, because the Republican landslide in 2010 allowed the party to redistrict its way to long-term control of Congress, with House seats far out of proportion to its share of the vote in many states.
From 2008 to 2018, only California voted to strip state legislators of the power to draw all political boundaries. (New York voters approved nonpartisan redistricting in 2014 and Ohio voters in 2015, but only for state legislative seats, not for Congress.) Anti-gerrymander initiatives in Ohio and South Dakota were defeated in 2012 and 2016.
But advocates say that public disgust with the state of politics is increasingly overriding partisan sentiment on the issue.
“Gerrymandering resonates with people in a way it didn’t even a few years ago,” said Michael Li, senior counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “We’re in a very distrustful moment. People think that people in power — the insider class — will do anything they can to keep it.”
Mr. Silver of Represent.Us said he agreed. “One thing that both Trump supporters and Bernie’s voters — and pretty much all voters — agree on is that the system is rigged,” he said, referring to Bernie Sanders, the liberal senator from Vermont. “In a political environment that’s confusing and frustrating to most Americans, this is an easy issue to understand.”
Only 26 states allow citizen-driven ballot initiatives, so their reach is limited. But legal experts and advocates say the campaign to end gerrymandering has other options it can pursue besides ballot initiatives.
Many states have constitutions that may offer more scope for lawsuits challenging gerrymandered maps than the federal courts do. Last winter the Pennsylvania Supreme Court became the first court to invalidate a state’s congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
And legislatures in some states, like Colorado, have begun to ponder whether the political and legal toll from partisan redistricting outweighs the advantages. Pennsylvania and Louisiana have seen the beginnings of bipartisan legislative efforts this year to hand over redistricting to apolitical commissions.
The current political climate is so unsettled, Mr. Li said, that legislators in some states worry about whether their party can count on having a majority — and with it, authority over redistricting — after the 2018 and 2020 elections.
“You don’t necessarily know who’s going to be in control in 2021 in many states,” he said. “That uncertainty creates an incentive to be reasonable in ways you didn’t have in the past.”
In some of the five states with ballot measures still to be decided this year, nonpartisan redistricting after the 2020 census could produce big changes. In Ohio, where statewide contests are often tossups, Republicans now control 11 of the state’s 15 House seats and dominate the state legislature. In Michigan, another battleground state, nine of 14 House seats are held by Republicans, as are both legislative chambers. In Colorado, on the other hand, the district map for the state House appears to favor Democrats, who won 57 percent of the seats in 2016 even though they received less than half the votes cast statewide, according to The Associated Press.
In strongly Republican Utah, the anti-gerrymander initiative is aimed more at boundaries drawn to protect entrenched incumbents than at any partisan imbalance, said Jeff Wright, a Republican and a co-chairman of the bipartisan group Better Boundaries.
He said that in 2016, there were hardly any competitive races for the Utah legislature: 70 percent of seats were won by margins of 30 points or more, including about one-fifth that were uncontested.
“So if you ask who’s getting the short end of the stick,” he said, “I’d say it’s the voters of Utah.”
Represent.Us, which claims 500,000 members, has poured money and volunteers into the Ohio referendum and other campaigns, Mr. Silver said. But most of the support for the ballot initiatives is homegrown. In Michigan, for example, Voters Not Politicians arose from a single Facebook post that its founder, Katie Fahey, dashed off in 2016; it mushroomed into a campaign that held 33 town-hall meetings across the state, recruited 12,000 volunteers and raised close to $1 million, most of it from small donors.
The group’s proposed remedy is similar to what has been advanced in the other states: amending the state constitution to turn responsibility for drawing political boundaries over to a citizens’ commission composed of Democrats, Republicans and independents or small-party supporters. The panel would be barred from giving any political party an advantage, and would judge its work using “accepted measures of partisan fairness.”
The state attorney general and the state chamber of commerce sued to block the proposal, saying that it is illegally broad. A lower court unanimously rejected that argument; the case is now before the state Supreme Court, which held a hearing about it last week.
The chamber says it does not support gerrymandering, “but we don’t see the current standard as favoring one party over another,” the group’s president, Richard K. Studley, said in an interview. “The current system isn’t perfect, but it’s better than what they’re proposing.”
Opponents appear to be planning a public campaign against the amendment should the court challenge fail. A new organization that appears tied to Republican Party interests, called Fair Lines America, has given $50,000 to the chamber-led alliance that is seeking to block the measure, and two veteran Michigan Republicans formed another group last year, People to Protect Voter’s Rights, to fight it.
Ms. Fahey of Voters Not Politicians said she believes public support for the proposal is strong.
“This is one of those building-block-of-democracy issues,” she said in an interview. “We’ve seen support across the state, including from the reddest counties.”
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