On May 22, 2018, the Senate State Government committee passed an amendment creating an independent redistricting commission. In doing so, they inserted new language not in the original bill regarding the criteria used in drawing maps.
As proposed, this new language would be detrimental to creating clear and measurable standards by which citizens may hold those drawing the maps accountable. The number one complaint from citizens is too many splits to their counties and municipalities. Under the amendment, the number of splits would significantly increase.
Emphasis on precise equality
Population is never static because people are born, die, and move every day. Not only does requiring precise equality ignore this inherent truth, but it also makes it nearly impossible to respect county and municipal boundaries. A look at the number of splits contained in congressional districts shows how greater equality leads to a greater number of needless splits.
US Supreme Court Justice O’Connor noted the insignificance of a 10% population deviation in Voinovich v. Quilter: “Our decisions have established as a general matter, that an apportionment plan with a maximum population deviation under 10% falls within this category of minor deviations.” (quoting Brown v. Thomson, 462 U.S. 835, 842-843 (1983))
In 2010, 62% of the states used an overall deviation exceeding 9% in forming their state districts. This is the norm among states because it maximizes the ability to keep counties whole, a nationally traditional redistricting standard.
What value would the State Government Committee see in departing from this long-standing tradition of respecting as many county boundaries as possible? From my perspective, I see nothing but harm to the people resulting from this departure from standard practices.
Excessive splits allowable and encouraged
The wording of the split language creates a standard permitting every county to be split one or two more times than necessitated by population. In practice, this means counties which are currently whole may now be divided and this amendment referenced as justification, even if such a division might be avoided.
Why would these excessive splits be allowed? Because under the constitutional amendment passed, these splits create only one or two more splits beyond what population requires.
If one thinks “absolute necessity” will prevent additional splits which are not needed for creating districts of equal population, remember how the Pennsylvania Supreme Court broadly interpreted this standard in 2012 and even again in 2018.
88% of the “plus one” county splits might have been avoided in the Senate plan. 68% of the “plus two” county splits might have been avoided in the House.
It is unfortunate the State Government Committee passed an amendment which makes the situation worse for citizens trying to hold those drawing the maps accountable. Why increase barriers to a meaningful citizen engagement?
The State Government Committee expressed interest in protecting the voice of the people. Instead, this aspect of the amendment would only serve to leave the people further exposed.
The good news is there is time for the Senate to rectify the oversight. The Senate might either eliminate these problematic criteria or replace them with something that serves the interests of the people of instead of hindering them. It is time to end the disregard for accountability.