Washington, DC—U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) has introduced the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act to take partisan politics out of the Congressional redistricting process. Johnson’s bill would set a nationwide standard for redrawing Congressional boundaries and establish an independent, bipartisan commission in each state to draw districts once every decade.
“Partisanship has crept in to the redistricting process more and more over the years, with politicians hoping to increase their odds of winning elections. It shouldn’t be this way. The Congressional redistricting process should be based not on party politics, but according to the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act,” said Johnson.
State legislatures, working with their governor, are responsible for drawing the boundaries of their Congressional districts. Currently, there are no national guidelines in place outlining how these boundaries should be drawn. As a result, the process can fall victim to gerrymandering that seeks to give one party or the other an edge in future elections.
The FAIR Act levels the playing field by putting in place national standards that all states must adhere to when redrawing their Congressional map. Each state would be required to establish an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission to redraw Congressional district lines only once every 10 years following the decennial Census.
Johnson’s bill prevents those who 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 from taking part in the commission. Commissioners are then barred from running for the House of Representatives until the Congressional districts have been redrawn by the next commission.
The legislation also brings a new level of transparency to the process by mandating the creation of state-based websites that are updated regularly with upcoming commission meetings and feature the most recent, detailed Census information on each district and the ability for individuals to submit questions and comments, as well as their own redistricting proposal.
“This bill puts in place common sense rules and brings transparency to the way our Congressional districts are developed nationwide. We can’t have party politics getting in the way of a fair and open redistricting process,” concluded Johnson.
Summary of the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act
- 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 final member, who serves as the chair, is elected by a simple majority vote by the original commissioners. The chair will direct the proceedings, but each commissioner has an equal voice.
- Exception for Nebraska, which has a unicameral legislature and no formal partisan structure: The chair of the Committee on Government will designate two state senators, who will each appoint at least two 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 House of Representatives until after districts are redrawn following the next census.
- 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, parishes, cities, towns, 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
- 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 cannot amend it. The plan is then presented to the governor for signature. To go into effect, the plan must be approved by Nov. 1 in the year before the next Congressional election.
- If the commission is not operational by Sept. 1, the responsibility for drawing a new Congressional map will be relegated to the federal court of jurisdiction.
- If the legislature and governor cannot agree on a plan by Nov. 1, the commission will present its plan to the state Supreme Court, which will have 30 days to approve or reject any plan presented by the commission.
- If the state Supreme Court is unable to approve a plan by Dec. 1, the new map will be drawn by the appropriate federal court, which will have until Jan. 1 to construct a new map.
Each state (except those with only one Congressional seat) will be authorized $150,000 per Congressional district to cover approximately half the cost of drawing a new map. Total cost: $64.2 million once every 10 years.
Transparency and Public Input:
- The bill requires the creation of a public Web site to be updated regularly with the most recent, detailed information on each district. The Web site will allow any individual to submit a redistricting proposal and submit questions and comments.
- The bill requires that the commission meet in public, solicit and consider public opinion and advertise through statewide media any approved plan.
- Seven days before submitting a redistricting plan to the state legislature, the commission will post on its Web site and publish in newspapers a detailed version of the plan, an explanation of how the plan would better serve the public and any dissenting statements from members of the commission.
The Congressional Research Service has reviewed similar legislative language and asserted Congressional authority to regulate the redistricting process, writing in part: “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.