Back in 2011 we had an opportunity to redraw our state’s congressional and legislative districts in a way that actually made sense. We blew it.
Our system is partly to blame. The state constitution says that a panel of eight legislators, including the leaders of both parties in each chamber, are supposed to come up with the maps. These maps then go to the legislature for approval. However, if the committee can’t agree, a ninth member of the redistricting committee is selected to break ties. If that fails, then the courts will appoint a “special master” to do it for them.
The idea is that both parties will be equally represented, and therefore will be forced to draw fair districts. There are even procedures in place to ensure they can’t drag their feet. Sounds good, in theory.
In practice, it’s always a big mess. Parties trade safe districts, and lines are drawn to ensure incumbents stay right where they are.
And 2011 was an even bigger mess than usual — the redistricting committee needed that ninth member, and couldn’t actually finish work on the map of congressional districts before their time ran out. The special master appointed by the courts was instructed to change as little as possible, which means that we ended up with congressional districts that are shaped almost exactly like they were in 2001.
That means we’re still using districts that were set up to protect incumbents like Chris Shays and Rob Simmons, based on the politics and demographics of the state almost 14 years ago. The result has been a few districts that make no sense: why is Torrington in the 1st District with Hartford, and why is New Britain in the 5th with Danbury? The map looks like somebody tried their best to game the system — and that’s pretty much what it is.
Gerrymandering is one of the evils of American political life, and it’s been around since the earliest days of the nation. In Connecticut, it’s an incumbency protection machine, and also a way of keeping the big majorities Democrats usually have in both houses of the legislature. The redistricting process has been abused by both parties nationwide, leading to round after round of lawsuits about the legitimacy of the new maps.
We must make sure this doesn’t happen here anymore. Our state’s redistricting process is badly broken, and the legislature needs to repair it. First, however, something that actually works better than the current system needs to be put forward as a credible alternative for reformers to rally around.
One possibility is what California has done — which is to put redistricting power into the hands of a nonpartisan citizen’s commission. This commission was created by a ballot initiative back in 2008, and was given power over congressional districts in 2010. California, to their credit, also established a “top two” primary system, which was supposed to make districts more competitive. So far, incumbents seem to be having few difficulties, but at least the system is a bit less rigged in their favor.
Another option is to do what Iowa has done since the 1980s and task a nonpartisan agency to create maps based on nothing but population. Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency creates the maps using computer software that doesn’t take politics into account at all. The result is districts that are compact and make geographical sense.
The other happy result of Iowa’s program is that it’s taken a lot of the contentiousness out of redistricting — Iowa’s legislature has passed the maps each time without much of a dustup. Either California’s or Iowa’s options would work well here, if only because either will take redistricting out of the hands of people who stand to directly benefit from it.
But if we want to change how the lines are drawn in our state, we need to change the constitution — and if we want to do that, we have to start now. Changing the constitution is a simple, if lengthy, process: two successive legislatures must approve an amendment, and then voters must vote on it. If we start now, we can get that vote done by 2020.
Legislators need to get on this at once. The legislature should pass an amendment to the constitution this session, so it can be passed again by the next legislature and then approved by voters well in advance of the next redistricting cycle. If we miss out, we’ll just have to do this all over again.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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