Take redistricting away from legislators

Chapman Rackaway

By A Contributor

Rules matter, whether you’re playing sports or politics. No rule is ever neutral: what restricts one player benefits another. The bump-and-run rule in football increased offense by an average of a touchdown a game.

What would sports look like if the players got to write the rules they have to obey while playing? Probably a lot like the redrawn district maps being debated by the Kansas Legislature. Whenever the players make the rules, the fights over them will be ugly and the players become the only beneficiaries. 

Kansas legislators have been scrambling to protect their own turf, draw potential challengers out of their districts and move district lines to secure general partisan or regional gains — and threaten to play even more political games with maps to leverage policy they want passed. Gamesmanship has replaced statesmanship in Topeka, and with a May 11 deadline set by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, it looks progressively less likely that we will have new maps for 2012. 

Drawing legislative maps used to be an arcane art practiced only by the most driven of demographers. But mapping tools are available online and data is readily available to everyone. Michael Smith, an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University, has shown that the right tools, in the form of online redistricting resources, can produce creative and fair maps drawn by members of the general public. Their maps are at least as fair, if not fairer, than those drawn up by lawmakers with skin in the game. People without something to gain or lose in the redistricting fight have given us maps that represent the public and balance the diverse needs of the state. 

So why do we let our state legislators create the districts they run in? Because we’ve always done it that way. Maybe it’s time to change. Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey and Washington have all have reduced elected officials’ redistricting role and put more in the public’s hands.

Washington’s method is noteworthy. Once the Department of the Treasury releases the number of districts each state gets, the commission goes to work. From May to August last year, Washington’s commission solicited comment, held forums and accepted plans. The commission then met and discussed plans, submitted preliminary public drafts for comment, and gave a final proposal to the Legislature in January. By February, the Legislature had approved the plan. Less than a month of legislative time was taken up with redistricting, partly because the Legislature has little power to change the commission’s map.

Part of Washington’s success owes to the composition of the commission: two Democrats, two Republicans and one non-partisan non-voting chair. The chair cannot be an active or former legislator, lobbyist or a current candidate for any office. Three of the four commissioners must agree on any plans, so one party cannot impose its will. Washington’s commission minimizes the opportunity for drawn-out shenanigans of the kind seen in Kansas.

Comparing Washington’s system with Kansas’ shows the benefits of an independent redistricting body. The current Kansas legislative session has been hijacked by redistricting, preventing necessary work like the budget from progressing through the legislature. Long-simmering fights between factions of the Republican Party have boiled over and started to affect other legislation. Little progress on school funding, KPERS reform and changes to Medicaid has occurred because of the standoff. 

Perhaps it’s time to look to Washington and the growing contingent of states that have taken redistricting out of the hands of people with an incentive to manipulate the maps in their own favor. 

Chapman Rackaway is an associate professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.

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