WASHINGTON – U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) joined Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) to introduce the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act to take partisanship out of the often divisive congressional redistricting process by requiring states to establish independent, bipartisan redistricting commissions.
In most states including Virginia, state legislatures — working with their governor — draw federal congressional district boundaries. Unfortunately, giving a political body control over creating district lines has too often resulted in gerrymandered districts drawn to keep incumbents in office. The FAIR Act would replace this system with independent, citizen-led redistricting commissions similar to those voters have approved in Arizona and California, which are less influenced by politics and special interests.
“In Virginia today, voters are experiencing a divisive, partisan legal battle over gerrymandered districts which has reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s time to take steps to fix the broken redistricting process,” said Sen. Warner. “Independent, bipartisan state redistricting commissions will help end the partisan gamesmanship, strengthen democracy and give voters a stronger voice in who represents them in Congress.”
Under the FAIR Act, states would be required to establish an independent, bipartisan redistricting commission that would be tasked with redrawing congressional district lines once every 10 years based upon the principles outlined in the bill. A minimum of five members would make up each state commission. An equal number of members would be appointed by each the minority and majority floor leaders in a state legislature. The bill also includes provisions requiring the commission to meet in public, solicit public input and advertise any plan it has approved.
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Virginia’s congressional redistricting case on Monday, March 21. Earlier this week, Chief Justice John Roberts turned down a request to delay enacting new district boundaries until the Court issues its ruling in the case.
A detailed summary of the bill is available below. Bill text is available here.
The Fairness and Independence in Redistricting (FAIR) Act
A minimum of five members make up the commission. An equal number of members are appointed by each the minority and majority floor leaders in the two houses of the state legislature. The bill provides an alternative for unicameral legislatures. The final member, who serves as the chair, is elected by a simple majority vote by the original commissioners.
Each commissioner must have been a registered voter in that particular state for the past two congressional election cycles. Each commissioner cannot have held elective or appointed office, been an employee of a political campaign, or worked for a political party in the past two congressional election cycles. No commissioner can run for U.S. House of Representatives until after districts are redrawn the next time, effectively barring commissioners from a House candidacy for 10 years.
The bill allows congressional redistricting to be done only once every 10 years, following the decennial census.
The commissioners must consider the following criteria when redrawing congressional districts:
– Adherence to the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act
– Equal population from district to district
– Contiguity and compactness of the district
– Maintenance of traditional boundaries (counties, cities, towns, voting precincts)
The commissioners may specifically not consider the following when redrawing congressional districts (unless exclusion violates state law or the Voting Rights Act):
– Voting history
– Party affiliation of voters
– Effects on incumbents
Once the new redistricting plan has been agreed to by a majority of the commissioners, it is presented to the state legislature, which may accept or reject it, but the state legislature cannot amend it. The plan is then presented to the governor for signature. To go into effect, the plan must be approved by November 1st in the year before the next congressional election.
If the commission is not operational by September 1st, the responsibility for drawing a new congressional map will be relegated to the federal court of jurisdiction.
If the legislature and the governor cannot agree on a plan by November 1st, the commission will present its plan to the state Supreme Court. The court will have 30 days to approve by majority vote or reject any plan presented by the commission.
If by December 1st, the state Supreme Court is unable to approve a plan, the new map will be drawn by the appropriate federal court. The federal court will have until January 1st to construct a new map.
Each state (except those with only one congressional seat) would be authorized to receive $150,000 per congressional district to cover approximately half the cost of drawing a new map.
The bill also requires the commission to meet in public, solicit and consider public opinion, and advertise through statewide media any plan it has approved.
The FAIR Act applies only to the process for congressional districts and has no effect on the process for drawing other district boundaries, including for state legislative seats.