September 19, 2014

Johnson and Udall Introduce Bill to Take Politics And Partisanship Out of Redistricting Process

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senators Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act (S. 2910) to take politics and partisanship out of the congressional redistricting process. Their bill would set minimum standards that states must adhere to when redrawing their congressional map.

"Partisanship should not have a role in the congressional redistricting process, but it's all too common for politicians to use redistricting as a tool to unfairly win elections," said Johnson. "Allowing party politics to prevent a fair and open redistricting process undermines our democratic process. I'm proud this bill would bring transparency to redistricting by putting in place common-sense rules."

"New Mexico - and the rest of America - isn't divided by the politics of 'red' or 'blue,' but made up of people who try to do what's right for their families and communities. And they expect the same of their elected officials in Washington. But Washington is so divided that Congress has lost sight of the common-sense values that matter," said Udall. "As a former member of the House, I'm proud to join Senator Johnson in leading the fight to end the practice of gerrymandering districts around partisan politics. Washington is not working today, and our bill will help us get back to the system Americans expect, where our representatives are chosen based on the quality of their ideas."

Currently, state legislatures, working with their governor, are responsible for drawing the boundaries of their federal congressional districts. Because there are no national guidelines in place outlining how these boundaries should be drawn, the process can fall victim to gerrymandering that seeks to give one party or the other an edge in future elections. The American public deserves a fair and transparent playing field when they go to the polls to elect their representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. Unfortunately, too often boundaries are drawn in a way that advance the objectives of political parties - at the expense of the American public - by protecting incumbents and reducing competition in our federal elections.

The FAIR Act would require each state to establish an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission that would be tasked with redrawing congressional district lines once every ten years based upon the principles outlined in the bill. A minimum of five members would make up each state commission. An equal number of members would be appointed by each the minority and majority floor leaders in a state legislature. The bill also includes a provision requiring the commission to meet in public, ask for public opinion, and advertise any plan it has approved.

Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act Summary

The Commission:
A minimum of five members make up the commission. An equal number of members are appointed by each the minority and majority floor leaders in the two houses of the state legislature. The bill provides an alternative for unicameral legislatures. The final member, who serves as the chair, is elected by a simple majority vote by the original commissioners.

Each commissioner must have been a registered voter in that particular state for the past two congressional election cycles. Each commissioner cannot have held elective or appointed office, been an employee of a political campaign, or worked for a political party in the past two congressional election cycles. No commissioner can run for U.S. House of Representatives until after districts are redrawn the next time, effectively barring commissioners from a House candidacy for 10 years.

The Process:
The bill allows congressional redistricting to be done only once every 10 years, following the decennial census.

The commissioners must consider the following criteria when redrawing congressional districts:

  • Adherence to the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act
  • Equal population from district to district
  • Contiguity and compactness of the district
  • Maintenance of traditional boundaries (counties, cities, towns, voting precincts)

The commissioners may specifically not consider the following when redrawing congressional districts (unless exclusion violates state law or the Voting Rights Act): 

  • Voting history
  • Party affiliation of voters
  • Effects on incumbents

Implementation Dates:
Once the new redistricting plan has been agreed to by a majority of the commissioners, it is presented to the state legislature, which may accept or reject it, but the state legislature cannot amend it. The plan is then presented to the governor for signature. To go into effect, the plan must be approved by November 1st in the year before the next congressional election.

If the commission is not operational by September 1st, the responsibility for drawing a new congressional map will be relegated to the federal court of jurisdiction.

If the legislature and the governor cannot agree on a plan by November 1st, the commission will present its plan to the state Supreme Court. The court will have 30 days to approve by majority vote or reject any plan presented by the commission.

If by December 1st, the state Supreme Court is unable to approve a plan, the new map will be drawn by the appropriate federal court. The federal court will have until January 1st to construct a new map.

Each state (except those with only one congressional seat) would be authorized to receive $150,000 per congressional district to cover approximately half the cost of drawing a new map.

Sunshine Provisions:
The bill also requires the commission to meet in public, solicit and consider public opinion, and advertise through statewide media any plan it has approved.

The Congressional Research Service has reviewed the legislation and confirmed congressional authority to regulate the federal redistricting process. Below is an excerpt from a CRS memo:
"Article I, Section 4, of the Constitution expressly provides Congress with the power to enact laws governing the time, place, and manner of elections for Members of the House of Representatives. This express grant of power would appear to permit Congress to limit the number of times states can conduct Congressional districting and to prescribe how such districting is conducted."

The FAIR Act applies only to the process for congressional districts and has no effect on the process for drawing other district boundaries, including for state legislative seats.