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Illustration by Alex Cochran

How redistricting will shape politics in the West for the next decade

There’s a big difference between states with independent commissions that redraw election district maps and states without them

SHARE How redistricting will shape politics in the West for the next decade
SHARE How redistricting will shape politics in the West for the next decade

States across the West are finalizing their new election district maps for the next decade based on 2020 U.S. census data, and their decisions will have far-reaching consequences.

In California, Republican Rep. Devin Nunes announced he won’t seek reelection after redistricting put him in a much more competitive district, exchanging a shot at the chairmanship of the influential House Ways and Means Committee to work for former President Donald Trump’s new media company. In Oregon, where Democrats control the redistricting process, they reduced the number of competitive districts for Republicans, while Utah Republicans did the same with the state’s lone remaining competitive district.

“Politicians, wherever they are, blue states, red states, they’re going to gerrymander if they have the opportunity to do that,” said Joe Kabourek, senior campaign director for RepresentUs, a good government and anti-corruption group.

The group’s 2021 Gerrymandering Threat Index found Western states including Nevada, Utah and Wyoming are at an extreme risk of gerrymandering because politicians are involved in drawing them, while states with independent redistricting commissions, like Arizona, California, Colorado and Idaho, are at a lower risk.

According to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, maps drawn by a commission are receiving an average grade of B+ when rated for fairness, while maps drawn by a state legislature are getting an average grade of D. But not all commissions are creating equal.

Independent commissions that are isolated from politicians and have strong structural constraints that prevent partisanship have the best shot for avoiding gerrymandering. Arizona has a bipartisan commission that’s required by the state Constitution to draw legislative districts that are contiguous, geographically compact and follow city, town and county boundaries.

In Utah, an advisory commission suggests new boundaries, but the state legislature is free to disregard them for their own plans, which happened this year. The state’s competitive 4th Congressional District, which has flipped between Democrats and Republicans since being created a decade ago, was redrawn by the Republican legislature. In Utah, political consultant and Deseret News opinion writer LaVarr Webb said Republicans weren’t worried about ignoring the commission-drawn maps because in their districts, most voters didn’t support the commission in the first place.

In Oregon, Democrats pressed their advantage to slim down the number of competitive districts from two to one, according to FiveThirtyEight.

“What we see in Oregon is in one way representative of what’s happening across the country,” said Neil O’Brien, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, of the shrinking number of competitive districts. “What’s different in Oregon, is Democrats are the beneficiaries in Oregon, where I think the other states where this is happening is usually it’s been largely Republicans.”

Republicans’ advantage sets them up well for 2022 and beyond. The Associated Press found 95 congressional seats that would have been drawn by Democrats this year are being drawn by commissions, compared with just 13 seats for Republicans.

O’Brien said while politicians in many states are picking their voters, there are still factors out of politicians’ control, including changing demographics and larger political trends like the suburbs swinging towards Democrats during former President Donald Trump’s time in office. Still, partisan redistricting “breeds resentment, because the stakes are so high.”

States that have approved their maps could still be forced to redraw them if the gerrymandering is egregious, and litigation can go on for years. Maps passed in North Carolina following the 2010 census had to be redrawn in 2016, 2017 and 2019.

Already, several states in West are seeing litigation. In Nevada, where Democrats control the state legislature and draw the boundaries, residents of the conservative, rural Nye County filed suit arguing that by including part of the county in urban Las Vegas area districts dilutes their vote. Even in Idaho, which has an independent commission, lawsuits have been filed claiming the new maps split up counties more than necessary.

Pointing to 31 states that still have to finalize their maps, and 13 with current court processes, Ally Marcella, a RepresentUs research analyst, said there’s still a ways to go.

“This is not done,” she said.