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The committees intended to combat gerrymandering can look very different per state


It's redistricting season - that time every 10 years when states across the country use new census numbers to redraw electoral maps at every level of government. One notable difference this year from a decade ago is the number of states where redistricting commissions will be drawing those lines rather than politicians. There are now about 10 states that do that, and the idea is to try to take some of the politics out of the process. But what does that mean exactly, and is it working? Joining us for more are two reporters in states where voters have made the move to commissions - Bente Birkeland from Colorado Public Radio in Denver and Jahd Khalil in Richmond, Va., with WVTF. Welcome to the program.


BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Thanks so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: So first off, can you walk us through why voters in your states decided to switch to redistricting commissions? As we mentioned, usually it's elected officials who are drawing these lines, but at least in your states, no more. Bente, I want to start with you. Why is that in Colorado?

BIRKELAND: So redistricting is a very important process. Not only can it determine the political makeup of Congress, it can impact which parties are in power in state governments across the country. And in Colorado, like most places, lawmakers have always drawn the political lines for Congress. But a bipartisan group of backers got behind an effort to leave it up to a citizen commission, split evenly with four Republicans, four Democrats and four unaffiliated members. It requires everything to be done in public. And voters overwhelmingly passed this change and thought it would be more transparent, fair and better represent citizens and not lend itself to gerrymandering.

MCCAMMON: And Jahd, what's been happening in Virginia?

KHALIL: Well, transparency and fairness were big issues here, too. Usually, the process was done behind closed doors. And there were lawsuits. Courts redrew congressional and state legislator seats because of racial gerrymandering. But also, Democratic politicians wanted a commission that would take redistricting out of the Republican-controlled General Assembly. When voters approved the amendment, it passed with a huge margin.

MCCAMMON: And Jahd, the makeup of the commission seems to be really key here. I mean, these are the people in charge of drawing these lines. Who is in charge in Virginia?

KHALIL: Here in Virginia, we have 16 members and it's evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and also between legislators and people who aren't in Virginia's General Assembly. The commission needs bipartisan support to pass anything, which has more or less resulted in partisan deadlock. And also, there are hired consultants that give legal advice or that actually draw the maps. Those are split up by party, too. So it's almost like we have two parallel redistricting efforts.

MCCAMMON: OK. And Bente, how is this working in Colorado?

BIRKELAND: Well, Colorado has a pretty different structure from Virginia. Voters created a buffer between politicians and the commission. Lawmakers can't serve on the commission or appoint commissioners. Passing a map requires a supermajority, and at least two unaffiliated members have to sign off on it. So if there is a deadlock, nonpartisan staff redraws the map, so it never reverts to politicians or lobbyists or a judge. And Colorado's commission passed the congressional map on a vote of 11 to 1. And now it's up to the state Supreme Court to review it and decide whether it meets the constitutional criteria. One of the unaffiliated commissioners, Joely Bronner (ph), echoed what I heard from the other commissioners, too. And she said she really stands by this new public process.

JOELY BRONNER: I think it was so amazing how involved everyone was in this process. All of the behind-the-scenes kind of meetings, when you think of like smoky caucuses, those are gone.

MCCAMMON: So the goal is more transparency. We're a couple of months into this process now. Are these commissions living up to expectations, and does it look like they're here to stay?

KHALIL: Well, in Virginia, this is part of the Constitution, so it's legally here indefinitely. But last week, the commission deadlocked to the point that three commissioners walked out of a key meeting. Everyone in the room was stunned and it threw the future of the commission into jeopardy. We can see the disagreements that are causing this compared to before when the Legislature might meet in private with little public input. A lot of the issue is that there's a fundamental disagreement about how to protect minorities during redistricting. If they can't resolve those issues, it's not clear if the commission will be able to finish any maps. And if they don't, the Supreme Court of the State of Virginia will take over redistricting. I'm not really sure if voters and legislators might keep it around if the commission fails to give a final vote on any map.

BIRKELAND: Everyone I've talked to in Colorado by and large is happy with how hard the commissioners tried to incorporate public comments and keep communities of interest together, which is a very complex task. Not everyone is happy with the outcome, though. The biggest contention is that the map doesn't adequately represent Latino residents and other minority groups and dilutes their political voice. If the Supreme Court does reject the map, the independent commission would need to meet again to try to address the court's concerns.

MCCAMMON: So as we've heard, we've seen a lot more states move in this direction compared to 10 years ago. Are redistricting commissions a bigger trend? Should we expect to see more?

BIRKELAND: I think it's a popular concept with voters from across the political spectrum, but the effectiveness does depend on the structure of the commission. And it is never easy for lawmakers to give up this massive power that they have right now.

MCCAMMON: That's Bente Birkeland of Colorado Public Radio and Jahd Khalil from WVTF. Thanks to you both.

BIRKELAND: Thanks so much.

KHALIL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bente Birkeland
Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
Jahd Khalil
Jahd Khalil is a reporter and producer in Richmond.
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