This week, an interest group and LSU will hold a conference dedicated to making Louisianans think that the sky isn’t blue.
LSU’s Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs will host Fair Districts Louisiana to discuss changing the way the state draws up its electoral districts. The group criticizes the current process as excessively partisan. As things now stand, members of the Louisiana Legislature draw electoral districts for themselves, Congress, the courts, and the Public Service Commission.
Some other interest groups across the country also think there’s a better way to redistrict than relying on state legislatures with the input of governors. This procedure, used by most states for decades, has produced lines favoring the party in power and/or incumbents in office just after the census every 10 years triggers a new look at how districts are shaped.
Critics argue that some kind of supposedly impartial commission should have the job of drawing districts. A dozen states presently use such commissions. In most cases, the panels are made of obvious partisans, along with some other members who are supposed to be nonpartisan. Some states still lean on a politician-driven process, but use such a boards in an advisory capacity or as a backup when legislators and governors can’t agree on a plan in a timely fashion.
Unfortunately, enthusiasts of these redistricting panels don’t seem to realize that no method of reapportionment takes politics out of the process. Or maybe some champions of redistricting panels understand that politics is still involved, yet still embrace them because they think the panels will help legitimize their own political objectives. But regardless of the motives behind this so-called reform, redistricting commissions that produce depoliticized results are a myth.
That’s because people are people. Even if they try consciously to act without bias, inevitably the political views of the panelists will affect what configurations they choose.
In 2011, with the help of allied interest groups, California Democrats gamed citizen commissioners to accept a congressional map highly advantageous to their party. The final product, in its protection of parties and incumbents, looked hardly distinguishable from ones drawn by past California legislatures notorious for such mischief.
The results of commission-led reapportionment efforts are no less biased than those rendered by legislatures. The latest published research on districting for Congress and legislatures after 2010, authored by scholars John A. Henderson, Brian T. Hamel and Aaron Goldzimer, noted that “independent commissions produce districts that are just as uncompetitive as partisan legislatures.” Although reformers complain that legislative reapportionment makes for partisan outcomes that also favor incumbents, commission reapportionment appears to do the same.
Since plans concocted outside of legislatures cannot be insulated from favoritism, then the public must decide which it prefers: a system where unelected and unaccountable individuals pretend to formulate a “fair” map that really contains biases either unconsciously instilled or deceptively hidden, or one where elected representatives held accountable at the ballot box draw boundaries that likely will favor a party, incumbents, or both. Transparency argues in favor of the latter.
If you think reapportionment disadvantages your party or that it empowers officeholders, you can solve that problem by convincing the electorate to vote out incumbent legislators. That's the best way to force the bargaining and compromise necessary to create electoral maps that serve the public interest.
The sky is blue, and that’s that.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.