One easy way to end gerrymandering: Stop letting politicians draw their own districts

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I've written a bit lately about the phenomenon of gerrymandered House districts, in the 113th Congress and the decades leading up to it. It's pretty clear that gerrymandering leads to lopsided party breakdowns in Congress, which undermines the whole notion of representative government. Just as important, it undermines voters' faith in the democratic process.

The burning question, then: can we do better? The simplest and most obvious reform would be to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians completely. Several states have already set up independent commissions to handle their redistricting - California, Arizona, Washington and Idaho.

And now U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), who was behind the effort to bring an independent redistricting commission to his state, has introduced legislation in the House that would do the same for the rest of the states. I spoke with him recently about the process of getting the bill passed in California, and the likelihood of doing the same nationwide.

Lowenthal's "Let the People Draw the Lines Act" would create independent panels consisting of five Democrats, five Republicans and four Independents.

"These would be people who haven't run for office, who aren't paid by either party, and who haven't contributed to either party," Lowenthal says. "That group would follow set criteria for drawing maps, and would hold public hearings throughout the state. The commission would approve the maps, and would not require legislative or governor's approval. If there was a legal challenge it would immediately go to federal district court."

Congress has tried to tackle the redistricting issue previously, without much success. Democrat Bruce Braley of Iowa currently has a bill out that would establish redistricting commissions as independent agencies of state legislative branches, but keeps authority for approval of the plans with the legislatures. Since politicians would still be very much in the driver's seat, it's hard to see how this would be much of an improvement over the current situation.

In the early 2000s, Lowenthal introduced a bill similar to his current House bill in the California legislature, when he was a state assemblyman representing the city of Long Beach. Redistricting from the 2000 Census was happening at the time. Lowenthal says the process was marked by a lot of "horse-trading" happening behind closed doors: Republicans and Democrats got together to divvy everything up, with the primary aim of protecting incumbents all around.

"There was tremendous interest from Washington," Lowenthal recalls. "Both parties wanted to make sure their incumbents were protected."

In 2003 Lowenthal, along with a group of other assembly Democrats and Republicans, first introduced legislation to create an independent redistricting commission. "Nobody wanted to support it," Lowenthal said. "We couldn't even get a second in committee."

After a long uphill slog through the legislative process, a version of the bill passed in 2010, seven years later. Two factors were key: growing popular pressure, and the support of then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Elected to the U.S. House in 2012, Lowenthal promptly introduced the "Let the People Draw the Lines Act"  to create similar independent redistricting commissions for the rest of the states.

The bill currently has only two co-sponsors, both freshman Democrats from California. If California's bill was a tough sell, a national bill will be even harder: according to govtrack.us, it has a 1 percent chance of being enacted.

"Here, just getting everyone's attention in an environment where so little gets done, I think it’s gonna be much more difficult," Lowenthal says. "It's going to take a lot of pressure from the media, from editorial boards, from communities, and from the people."

Getting a bill like this passed would require convincing legislators to vote some degree of power out of their own hands. And if there's anything we know about congressmen, it's that they try to hold on to power at any cost.

"There is such distrust in government today," Lowenthal says. "This would be one small step of many to reestablish that trust."

But if the California bill is any example, politicians aren't going to budge on the measure without a huge amount of popular support behind it - not to mention the efforts of a strong executive to push the bill across the finish line. Voters seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle of cynicism and apathy - they believe nothing will ever change in Congress, so they're disinclined to try to bring about change.

One telling statistic? Voter dissatisfaction with incumbents is at record highs. But so far, only one incumbent has been voted out this primary season.

What do you think about turning redistricting over to independent committees? Let me know in the comments. Tomorrow, I'll look at a solution that takes redistricting out of human hands completely.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.
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