There was a flurry of redistricting activity right at the deadline, leaving us with a few maps and a distinct sense that the process as it currently exists isn’t working. The bipartisan redistricting committee has had most of the year to accomplish its task but, rather like a dorm full of college freshmen who have been too busy playing Call of Duty all semester, it saved all the work for the last minute and then, out of time, didn’t bother finishing the last part. If I were their professor I’d do two things: First, I’d fail them. Second, I’d question myself; is this assignment too tough? Is it beyond their capabilities? Maybe they should be given something easier to do, like raising the number of wine festivals from one to two or going home until February.
To be fair, the redistricting committee did finally produce new districts for the state House and Senate before appealing to the Supreme Court for more time to get the congressional district boundaries right. Some districts stayed mostly the same, while others have either migrated across towns and cities or have contorted themselves into some very original shapes. For instance, the 48th House District, which is currently neatly contained within the boundaries of Colchester and East Haddam, will morph into this oddity stretching from most of Colchester up through Lebanon and an embarrassingly small slice of Windham before ending in the piece of Mansfield that has nothing to do with the University of Connecticut. This district is currently represented by Rep. Linda Orange (D-Colchester). What gives? This is just one of many stretched and skewed shapes on the map for which we have little to no explanation.
The redistricting committee clearly took a lot of factors into account, such as geographical congruity, local input, keeping communities of interest together, and making sure no current legislator is redistricted into another legislator’s territory—at least not one who isn’t retiring. No one should be surprised that a legislative committee is acting in the best interest of the rest of the legislature. This is how it works. The old map was just as bad, and this is one of the many reasons why the process we have for redistricting is broken. A legislative committee has no business drawing its own district boundaries, questions of work ethic aside. It’s too easy to play politics; for instance, members who don’t toe the party line might find themselves in a more competitive, less well-known district, or shut out altogether. In 1981, Windsor found itself carved up between districts, without a majority in any of them, following a political battle between Gov. William O’Neill and Windsor’s state representative. Windsor finally has a majority in a district, the new 5th, but that this kind of thing could happen at all is reprehensible. In fact, there’s already some grumbling about payback in this year’s new district lines.
What remains undone is even more of an argument against the current system. The committee couldn’t come to an agreement on Congressional district boundaries. It’s not even surprising, since each party wants to create districts they could benefit from. One of the members of the commission, right up until a few hours before the deadline, was Speaker Christopher Donovan, who will be running for Congress next year in one of the redesigned districts. Of course, everyone on the committee has an interest in the outcome, Donovan’s was just more obvious than most.
To underscore this, Democrats and Republicans released their wildly different congressional map proposals this week. Democrats want to keep things very close to where they are now, as they control all five seats. The bizarre gerrymandering of the first and fifth districts remains, and only minor shifts are made to accommodate population changes. Republicans, on the other hand, have proposed an incredibly creative new map that puts New Haven and Bridgeport in the same district, among other drastic boundary shifts. This map is a thing of beauty if you appreciate naked partisanship in your district boundaries; it creates Democrat Containment Zones in the first and third, while shifting the second, fourth and fifth to a far more conservative alignment. Some of what’s there makes good sense, and creating a majority-minority district along the shore is a noble goal, but it’s impossible to see past the politics.
What we have, then, is a process that is inherently political, inefficient, mysterious and subject to abuse. We can do better. Connecticut needs to take the redistricting process out of the hands of politicians who have a huge stake in the outcome and put something more transparent and fair in place. There are good models out there. Panels of retired judges or other nonpartisan officials are always a favorite, and I like what I’ve seen from California’s Citizens’ Redistricting Commission. Surely there is a model out there that would work better for Connecticut than the current mess. Before we do this again in 2021, let’s work on getting the process right.