Greta Harris had enough.
The 16-person panel she was co-chairing was on the verge of a meltdown after months of trying to draw new boundaries for districts in the Virginia state legislature. The deadline for submitting maps had arrived but there was no plan.
The panel was tasked with redrawing political districts, a task that lawmakers across the US undertake every 10 years. In recent years, there’s been a growing alarm at how politicians have taken advantage of that process, distorting district lines to essentially choose the voters they represent and locking in their re-election and party control of certain seats. There’s now a broader recognition of how the practice, called gerrymandering, can essentially rig elections in favor of one party.
Ten years ago, Republicans launched an unprecedented effort to gerrymander to their advantage. In the 2010 election, they targeted under-the-radar races in state legislatures with the goal of taking control of those bodies to control the redistricting process. The effort, called Project REDMAP, was remarkably successful. Republicans used their newfound majorities in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to draw district lines that would lock Democrats out of power for years to come. In some places, Republicans weren’t subtle about what they were trying to do. In Michigan, A Republican aide bragged about cramming “Dem garbage” into certain districts.
This year, Harris’s panel, comprising eight lawmakers and eight citizens and evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, was supposed to help prevent that kind of distortion from happening.
But by the beginning of October, things were so bad that the commission couldn’t even agree on how they should start drawing the maps. There were Democratic proposals and Republican proposals, and the panel couldn’t reach a consensus on which to use as a starting point. After a vote to find a compromise failed, Harris quit.
“At this point I don’t believe all members of the commission are sincere in their willingness to compromise and create fair maps for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Harris, a Democrat. “I will remove myself from the commission at this point.” She then walked out of the meeting with two other Democratic commissioners, denying the panel a quorum. (She has since returned to the commission.)
“I never want to be involved in this again. Because this is not right,” said James Amodio, another Democrat who walked out with Harris.
Virginia is part of an unprecedented wave of states that are trying new processes this year for drawing district boundaries. Those experiments mark significant wins in decade-long efforts by government watchdogs, civil rights organizations and ordinary citizens to limit the severe manipulation of district lines for partisan gain, a practice called gerrymandering.
For years, gerrymandering, which can virtually guarantee election results and diminish the impact of votes, flew under the radar. But activists have spent much of the last decade carefully cultivating widespread awareness of the practice through an aggressive combination of high-profile litigation, legislative pressure and ballot initiatives. Now new challenges in Virginia and elsewhere are undermining those reforms and underscoring how difficult a problem gerrymandering is to solve.
The walkout in Virginia was hard to watch for people like Liz White, the executive director of OneVirginia2021, which has spent the last few years persuading Virginians to create the bipartisan commission and give it the power to draw district lines. The effort, which began in the middle of the last decade, required convincing skeptical lawmakers, including Democrats, to give voters a chance to amend the constitution to create the commission and then persuading voters to do just that. In 2020, Virginia voters overwhelmingly approved the measure.
“It’s frustrating for sure,” White said of the commission’s recent stalemate. “It’s been challenging to work so hard to get this commission created and implemented and then it’s kind of like watching your baby go off to college.”
There may be no state where the pressure is higher than in Michigan, where 13 citizens (four Democrats, four Republicans, and five independents) are drawing the state’s lines. Unlike the Virginia panel, the Michigan commission is entirely independent from the legislature – state lawmakers are barred from serving on it.
Three years ago, creating the commission was one of the biggest grassroots victories in the country. A Facebook post from a woman with no political experience grew into a successful effort to gather hundreds of thousands of petition signatures, which grew into a state constitutional amendment, overwhelmingly approved by voters, to create the commission. The political novices behind the effort fought off well-funded opposition from Republicans and allied groups. At the time, Michigan was one of the most gerrymandered states in the country.
The Michigan commission has been working on draft maps over the last few months and, with a few exceptions, activists have been largely encouraged by what they have seen. While Michigan’s maps had long been drawn behind closed doors, the commission has done nearly all of its work in the public eye.
“Listening to the motivation, watching what criteria are being used and why they’re being used in the meetings, it all seems very genuine. You can follow the paper trail, you can see and listen to why they are making different decisions,” said Katie Fahey, the woman who spearheaded the constitutional amendment. “You don’t have people who are trying to guarantee a 10-year advantage for one party over the other.”
But now, the commission faces its biggest challenge yet. The panel has finalized several draft maps for public review and is taking them around the state for public input. They have already drawn strong criticism from Black leaders and activists who say the proposed maps would diminish their voting power in the state. Michigan has a combined 21 state legislative and congressional districts where minorities have a majority. But the proposed maps could have no districts where Black voters comprise a majority, a feature that has raised alarm from the state’s civil rights bureau and Black leaders.
The new maps would dilute the votes of people who live in places with heavy minority populations by cracking them into different districts and combining them with predominantly white areas, the state’s department of civil rights wrote in an analysis last month.
Those lines drew heavy criticism during a public hearing earlier in October in Detroit, where nearly 80% of the population is Black. The proposed maps link voters in Detroit with voters in suburban, whiter areas.
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was created to provide an opportunity for Black people to elect representatives that look like them and of their choosing. Your current maps crack Detroit and make this impossible,” Betty Edwards, who described herself as a lifelong Detroit resident, told the commissioners.
“We want representatives that look like us, live with us and understand the issues that Detroiters have,” Tonjia Ray, another Detroit resident, told the commissioners in October.
The commission’s advisers have said that it’s possible for minority voters to elect the candidate of their choice in districts, even if they don’t comprise a majority of the population. Determining the appropriate percentage of a minority population needed to comply with the Voting Rights Act can be a complex analysis that depends on the unique political characteristics of an area.
These kinds of fights over maps were always expected, said Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the organization that led the 2018 effort to create the commission. The Michigan constitution lays out specific, ranked criteria that the commission has to follow; districts have to comply with the Voting Rights Act, be contiguous, reflect communities of interest, not favor any political party, incumbent or candidate, respect county, city and township boundaries, and be compact.
But redistricting is an enormously complex effort that often involves tradeoffs between those criteria. Is it worth breaking up two communities if it makes a district more competitive? How do you draw districts that preserve minority communities while also making sure districts are fair?
“The commission, what it’s struggling with right now, is to draw maps that reflect communities of interest while achieving partisan fairness,” Wang said. “I don’t think they were having these discussions behind closed doors when they were gerrymandering.”
Nextdoor in Ohio, reformers are closely monitoring what happens in Michigan. Catherine Turcer, the executive director of the Ohio chapter of Common Cause, a government watchdog group, has been working for decades to get Ohio to adopt a new process for redistricting. Just as they did in Michigan, Republican lawmakers carved up the state in 2011 to give themselves a majority in the state legislature and a 12-4 advantage in the state’s delegation.
Over the last few decades, Ohioans repeatedly voted down redistricting reform proposals, including a 2012 effort to create an independent redistricting commission. But in 2015, Turcer and other reformers in the state achieved a breakthrough. Voters approved a constitutional amendment that gave redistricting power for state legislative districts to a seven-person panel of elected officials from both parties. It required the panel to make its decisions in public and set out several criteria the panel must follow, including one that says districts can’t “unduly favor or disfavor a party or incumbents”.
“I look back and I felt like pigs were flying around the statehouse,” Turcer said.
But this is the first year that the new rules have been in effect and Turcer watched with horror last month as Republicans ignored the new guardrails and drew severely gerrymandered maps anyway. Overriding Democratic objections, the panel adopted a plan that would give Republicans a veto-proof supermajority in the state legislature. Even though Republicans have consistently received around 54% of the statewide vote over the last decade, Republicans said they should be entitled to as many as 81% of the seats in the state legislature. Their rationale for that was sketchy – they said they were entitled to such a high vote share because they won 81% of the 16 previous statewide elections.
Even Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine, a Republican who sits on the redistricting panel, acknowledged there were problems with the map. “I am sure in my heart … this committee could have come up with a bill that was much more clearly, clearly constitutional and I’m sorry we did not do that,” he told reporters after the bill was passed. The map already faces multiple challenges from civil rights groups.
In Virginia, things have not improved much since Harris’s walkout. In addition to the state legislative districts, the panel has been unable to reach any kind of agreement to draw congressional districts. That means that the Virginia supreme court, where Republicans have appointed four of the seven justices, will almost certainly draw all of the state’s districts.
But for all the disappointment in Virginia, White and other organizers still say that having a commission in place is far better than the old system where lawmakers drew their districts. Any maps that the Virginia supreme court comes up with, White and others say, are likely to be fairer than the ones lawmakers created on their own.
“Everyone in Virginia could agree that the problem they all wanted fixed was one party drawing maps, in the dark, in secret, and this was a solution to that. I mean Virginia has moved past that problem,” she said.