Screenshot of Nathaniel Persily, special master and Stanford University professor

A court-appointed special master invited members of Connecticut’s bipartisan redistricting panel Monday to make one last attempt at negotiating the lines of new congressional districts. 

Last month, the state Supreme Court assigned the special master, Stanford University professor Nathaniel Persily, to draft a plan to ensure each of the state’s five congressional districts have an equal number of residents. The court inherited jurisdiction over the process when the legislature’s Reapportionment Commission failed to come to an agreement.

However, during a hearing Monday, Persily said proposals by legislative Democrats and Republicans were relatively close and urged them to make one last attempt at finding common ground in the next 48 hours.

“In a national perspective — as you know I’m doing this around the country — you all are pretty close to each other,” Persily told the co-chairs of the commission during the remote hearing.  

Persily, who also served as the special master 10 years ago when Connecticut’s Reapportionment Commission failed to reach agreement on congressional maps, urged the panel to adopt areas of agreement if they could not agree on the entire statewide map. In other states, Persily said he has sometimes drafted a plan that “displeases everybody.”

He asked the two chairs, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly and House Speaker Matt Ritter, to report back by noon on Wednesday. 

“I wanted to try just one more time because I do think it can be a model for the country as well, how to work through the state legislative process in a way that I think is admirable,” Persily said. “I’m bringing a national perspective to this as well as a state perspective in thinking, if it is at all possible, for the process to work as originally intended as opposed to getting the court’s involvement, I think that would be optimal.”

Both chairs praised the bipartisan process that led to the commission unanimously approving new maps for state House and Senate districts late last year. They seemed open to giving negotiations on congressional lines one more shot. Kelly said he welcomed the opportunity and Ritter said he would consult other Democrats on the commission. 

Separating the two parties is either minor changes — centering largely on whether Torrington needs to be unified in one district — or a broader gulf on the shape of Connecticut’s contorted 1st District. An order by the Supreme Court narrows the focus on the former, calling for Persily to adopt a map with minimal changes to accommodate population shifts. 

However, in their brief and during testimony Monday, Republicans asked that the court consider more sweeping changes including condensing the 1st District.  The “claw,” which reaches west from Hartford, was created to ensure incumbents could run for reelection when Connecticut lost its 6th District in 2001.

“Just because a gerrymandered map was established in the past does not make it right today,” Kelly said. 

Meanwhile, Aaron Bayer, a lawyer representing state Democrats, said he worried the comments gave people reason to doubt the validity of the redistricting process. 

“There is nothing wrong with the 2001 map. It is the last map that both parties agreed to through a negotiated, bipartisan agreement in the legislative process,” Bayer said. “That’s a good thing and very little has changed in those districts 10 years ago and today and that’s why those lines persist.”

Given its prior directions, the court seems inclined to approve a plan that makes the least changes possible to the existing districts. Both parties submitted maps that make modest alterations to the lines in order to evenly distribute Connecticut’s population as recorded by the 2020 census survey. 

The map the court eventually approves must create five districts, each with around 721,000 residents and must shift more than 21,000 people into the under-populated 2nd District while removing more than 25,000 people from the crowded 4th District. 

During the hearing, Democrats argued that their plan accomplished the task and displaced the fewest number of residents from their current voting districts. Ritter said the Democrats’ plan moved nearly 72,000 people from their current districts while the Republican plan moved around 125,000 people into new districts.

“The amount of disruption [in the Republican plan], I believe, is significant,” Ritter said. 

Republicans, meanwhile, argued that their plan had the benefit of unifying the city of Torrington in the 5th District while the Democrats’ would keep the town as it is currently: split between the 1st and 5th. Rep. Jay Case, a Winstead Republican whose district includes Torrington, said the change would help registrars of voters in the city by reducing the number of ballots the town must print.

“Please, take a look at Torrington and make sure we can do something for those registrars that have been pulling their teeth out with the number of candidates that they’ve had,” Case said. 

The court has instructed Persily to turn over his redistricting plan by Jan. 18 and expects to submit its decision to the Secretary of the State’s Office by Feb. 15.