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A ‘nonpartisan’ redistricting commission?

By Staff | Sep 30, 2011

During the recently completed special legislative session on redistricting, many calls were heard, some from legislators, to take redistricting out of the hands of the legislature.

Thirteen states have gone this route, creating legislative redistricting commissions. Seven of those states also have congressional redistricting commissions.

The reason many people advocate such a move is that redistricting by the legislature reveals politics at its rawest.

“Why not remove the politics from redistricting?” they ask.

Some of the states that have done this have specified that the commission must be officially “nonpartisan.” Others have presumed that merely removing the issue from the legislature will suffice.

Arkansas has a three-member commission consisting of the governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general. Talk about ignoring separation of powers! Idaho has a six-member commission, three Republicans and three Democrats. They deadlocked this year, and redistricting is now in the courts.

Early returns seem to indicate that the politics is not removed from redistricting by taking it away from the legislature, even if the most stringent language requiring “nonpartisanship” is included in the law creating the redistricting commission. In some states it is merely camouflaged – the politics still there, but hidden by a “nonpartisan” veneer. In other states the politics is just as in the open and just as raw, but without the accountability of the legislature. Citizens have no recourse to punish commission members with whom they disagree. They can vote against a legislator for re-election.

Legislatures are designed to resolve political questions. Not so commissions. And redistricting plans produced by commissions have been overturned by the courts as frequently as have been plans produced by legislatures.

There is nothing more political than redistricting. I think that it’s better that the politics, raw as they are, be out in plain view rather than hidden from the public. If a given party, individual or geographic region is punished for political reasons, best the world know.

Speaking of geographic regions, ours is historically, at the moment and for the forseeable future, the most vulnerable politically. At least with the legislature doing the work, those of us representing the Eastern Panhandle have the chance to use our friendships and our dealmaking ability to protect our area’s vital interests to some degree.

I would argue that this has worked, at least when it comes to legislative redistricting. In the 2001 redistricting, we were treated unfairly in State Senate redistricting, but that was made up for by overly favorable treatment in House of Delegates redistricting. This year both House and Senate redistricting resulted in us in the Eastern Panhandle being given exactly the additional representation our numbers justify.

If there had been a so-called “nonpartisan” commission doing the redistricting in either 2001 or 2011, I suspect it would have been even more dominated by Charleston than is the legislature. I fear that as a result we would have each time come out even less well than we did.

As to congressional redistricting, the Eastern Panhandle has now been made to sacrifice for three redistrictings in a row. In 1991, when West Virginia lost one of its four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, we were combined with Charleston in a district that goes from the depths of the Ohio River to the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The configuration makes no sense whatsoever. And the legislature has seen fit to keep it through two subsequent redistrictings.

But I doubt that a special redistricting commission, nonpartisan or otherwise, would have done any different.

On balance I think a nonpartisan redistricting commission is fools’ gold. The appointees will be just as political as the legislature, but accountability will be lacking and the politics may not be so obvious.