by Becki Gray
Former Senior Vice President, John Locke Foundation
On opening day of the 2019-20 General Assembly, we heard lots of promises of collaboration. There are opportunities to work together; finding a budget that meets the state’s needs while keeping policies that have created strong economic growth, reforms to an archaic alcohol beverage system, and creating a health care system that ensures quality care, lowers costs and ample access.
But an issue that has been one of the most controversial for decades could be an avenue for partisan agreement – redistricting. No, I’m not delusional. I know there have been record lawsuits that extend from one decennial census to the next one. I understand there have been disagreements that have developed into fights and distrust on and by both sides that seems hard to bridge. You may be thinking if there is one area they will NEVER agree, it’s redistricting. But you may be wrong. It may be the one area where the motivation and risks are exactly the same for both sides and in both sides’ best interest to find a stop gap from the other.
Democrats gerrymandered maps to their advantage for the 140 years they controlled state government. And Republicans hated it. Republicans got their turn when they wrestled power away from Democrats in 2010. With improved technology and cutting edge software, they took gerrymandering to a whole new level. And the Democrats hated it. How do you prevent the other side from doing it again? You take out an insurance policy that the other side will never get a complete control again. You don’t want them to control the pen that draws the map and they don’t want you to have it. How do you ensure your enemy doesn’t get the pen? Give the pen to someone else. Someone else who is required to be fair, impartial, and comply with the rules. Perhaps the non-partisan professional staff at the General Assembly. Perhaps a commission made up of representatives from the two major parties with a neutral party as a tiebreaker or arbitrator. Perhaps a combination of both with final approval by the General Assembly. Either way you take out an insurance policy to ensure your enemy never gets the pen again. You put it in the state constitution so it can’t be changed. And by putting it in the constitution, you mitigate the unending lawsuits based on constitutional challenges.
Even when parties have gerrymandered maps to give themselves an electoral advantage, they still have to find candidates to run in those districts and win. Good candidates are more likely to win, become effective legislators implementing their parties ideas well and govern in ways that voters endorse and continue to support. But with unending lawsuits that bring constant uncertainty as to what those districts will look like in the next election cycle, good people are discouraged from investing resources, time and sacrifice to serve with so much uncertainty. Who wants to throw their hat in the ring, build a donor base, establish a constituency, develop services and knowledge of a districts’ needs and fulfill the demands of serving when that district may change before the next election? No re-election is guaranteed of course but uncertainty of what that district will look like and when it will change is a deterrent for good people to run. And without good candidates, even with gerrymandered districts, the party’s chances of success are greatly diminished. How to ensure the parties can recruit good candidates, retain effective lawmakers who will implement their policies and ideas and consistently win elections? Stablize the districts so there is consistency. Make the redistricting rules constitutional provisions and eliminate the questions that have driven the state lawsuits that have created so much upheaval in the districts.
They may not agree on this. But they should. Take out an insurance policy and stabilize the districts in order to recruit good candidates. Call it collaboration or call it self preservation. Everyone wins. Or at least there’s a fair playing field.