February 03, 2016

Udall, Gillibrand, Whitehouse, Merkley, Warner, Heinrich Unveil Bill to Take Partisanship Out of Congressional Redistricting, Restore Choice to Voters

Independent citizen-led redistricting will help fix broken political system

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) introduced the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act to take partisanship out of the often divisive congressional redistricting process by requiring states to establish independent, bipartisan redistricting commissions.

In most states, state legislatures -- working with their governor -- draw federal congressional district boundaries. Unfortunately, giving a political body control over creating district lines has too often resulted in gerrymandered districts drawn to keep the majority party in power. The FAIR Act would replace this system with independent, citizen-led redistricting commissions similar to those voters have approved in Arizona and California, which are less influenced by politics and special interests.

"As a former member of the House of Representatives, I've seen firsthand how congressional districts skewed to favor one party contribute to the gridlock that prevents us from getting things done for the American people," Udall said. "We need to end the gerrymandered status quo. Independent, citizen-led redistricting commissions will make our elections more competitive and give voters a real choice. Partisan lawmakers set on keeping incumbents in office shouldn't be drawing congressional district maps, and the FAIR Act ends this practice once and for all."

Udall first introduced the bill in 2011 with former Senator Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), and he cosponsored similar legislation as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Udall is a champion for fair elections that are free of unlimited and undisclosed special interest money, and redistricting reform is part of his comprehensive plan to restore integrity to our democratic process.

"Under the current process, politicians pick the voters they want instead of the voters choosing the leaders they want. The system is upside down and needs to be reversed," Gillibrand said. "This practice hurts our democracy and takes away power from the voters. The FAIR Act will create much-needed transparency reforms by taking politics out of the congressional redistricting process and allowing a non-partisan commission to draw congressional districts."

"It's easy to think of gerrymandering as silly-looking districts with nicknames like ‘the upside-down elephant' and ‘the praying mantis.' But behind those twisted shapes, gerrymandering has a very serious effect on our democracy, contributing to hyper-partisanship in Congress and silencing many voters," Whitehouse said. "Ensuring representation in Congress should be based on transparency, not party politics. And our districts should make sense for voters, not just for incumbents seeking reelection. It's time to give control to independent redistricting commissions with nothing but citizens' interests at heart."

"Americans deserve fair and unrigged representation in Congress," Merkley said. "Unfortunately, most congressional districts are so gerrymandered that they suit the needs of politicians and special interests instead of the people. Americans know that Congress is broken and tailor-made congressional districts are part of the problem. The FAIR Act is one step we can take to restore our democracy. Let's take the drawing of congressional districts out of the hands of political party bosses and politicians and instead allow fair, independent commissions to create congressional districts that are designed to give the people fair representation, not to disenfranchise voters and manipulate our democracy for political gain."

"In Virginia today, voters are experiencing a divisive, partisan legal battle over gerrymandered districts which has reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," Warner said. "It's time to fix the broken redistricting process once and for all. Independent, bipartisan state redistricting commissions will end the partisan gamesmanship, strengthen democracy and give voters a stronger voice in who represents them in Congress."

"The FAIR Act is a step toward elections where voters choose who is elected to Congress, instead of political party operatives," Heinrich said. "Independent, bipartisan redistricting commissions will restore public confidence by ensuring that congressional delegations accurately reflect the communities that elect them."

Under the FAIR Act, states would be required to establish an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission that would be tasked with redrawing congressional district lines once every 10 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 provisions requiring the commission to meet in public, solicit public input and advertise any plan it has approved.

A detailed summary of the bill, S. 2483, is available below. Bill text is available here.

The Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act

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 the 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.

Funding:
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.

Scope:
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.