The Sham of Redistricting Reform

The state’s editorial boards sound like a broken record on redistricting reform. Their claim? That an independent commission would create fairer districts. Unfortunately, they’ve bought an argument based on unexamined assumptions. Redistricting reform would neither remove the bias from the process nor result in fairer districts. What it would do is undermine the public’s voice in state government.

First, let’s examine the concept that redistricting reform would produce an “independent” commission. What does independent mean in this context? Would commissioners only come from people who are not enrolled in a political party? I doubt such a restriction is either intended or would stand up in court. Would political considerations be removed from the selection process? Not in the least. The commissioners would be chosen––as all such bodies are chosen––by the governor, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. So, on what basis would such commissioners be independent? The answer: None.

Further, the idea that an independent commission would be able to draw lines that are fairer than those drawn by elected officials is based on false assumptions. The rap on the current system is that lines are drawn to favor incumbents. (P.S.: The media like to ignore the fact that lines drawn by legislators are repeatedly found to be both legal and constitutional.)

The question then is on what basis would an independent commission’s lines be drawn? The best answer one can extract from editorials on the topic is districts that are shaped more like circles than hot dogs. That the shape of a district has anything to do with fairness is another unsubstantiated assumption.

The truth of the matter is that the independent commissioners wouldn’t draw a single line. The lines will be drawn by paid staffers using sophisticated computer programs, and since there must be some criteria to draw the lines, the biases in the system would be put there either by the programmer or by the staffers running the program.

An independent commission will hide the biases that are inevitably built into drawing district lines. The commission will issue a press release declaring that the new lines are unbiased. But they’d be unbiased by definition not in fact. The public would never know what biases have been built into their districts and thus our democratic system will be that much diminished.

The notion of an independent election commission ignores the fact that one of the deserved rewards of having been elected to a seat in the State Legislature is the power to control district lines for future elections.

Elected officials are supposed to make decisions that favor their constituents. They are supposed to provide benefits to their districts and to the groups that favored their election. The notion that elected officials are should be neutral or “objective” is absurd on the face of it, yet the state’s newspapers continue to advocate that position as if it were logical and sound.

What then is behind redistricting reform? My guess is that it is a reaction to the fact that the public is more and more upset about how things are done in Albany and in Washington. Redistricting reform is being offered as a way to convince the public that government is paying attention. Since reform will not change one law or one policy, what reformers must hope is that they can put it in place and retire with their fat pensions before the public catches on to the hoax.

It’s time to put this redistricting farce to bed. No commission can be independent and district lines cannot be drawn without prejudice. In the end, the public loses if redistricting reform is passed.

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