Our region has attracted the attention of the Terminator.
“I’m right now on a campaign to terminate gerrymandering,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger in a video from Budapest, where he’s shooting his latest film.
Schwarzenegger is raising money for efforts in four states, including two in the Mountain West, to end the political practice.
We hear about gerrymandering a lot these days, but not necessarily an explanation for what it is. It’s complicated, but not impossible to explain.
We’ll start at the intersection of Colfax and Broadway in downtown Denver. Aside from an exceptional amount of pigeon poop, it looks like a normal street corner.
What people waiting to cross the street don’t know is that when they step off the curb, they will be crossing an invisible precipice. It’s the line that separates a district represented by one politician from a district represented by another.
“The invisible line isn’t discernible from any other place on this corner,” says Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization focused on open and accountable government.
These lines are everywhere, crisscrossing through cities and fields and sometimes even cutting right between neighboring houses in a gated community. Gonzalez says they’re really important. Her group is one of many backing a measure in Colorado that wants to drastically change who draws those lines.
“Hopefully after November the people drawing that line will be people just like you and me,” she says. “Right now, it's largely politicians that draw it.”
Historically, state legislatures have been in charge of drawing the various voter maps, which are different for state Senate, state House and Congress. Redrawing normally happens every ten years, after the results of the census come in.
This is where gerrymandering comes in.
Under the current system in many states, the party in power can draw the maps. That means the incumbent party can make it easier for its own members to continue getting elected in the future.
“It results in legislatures that not only don't look like the electorate, but where you can never change the result. And that's a huge problem for our democracy,” says Michael Li, senior redistricting counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
As this Washington Post video explains, there are plenty of ways to slice and dice voters in order to favor one party in an election. If you prefer pizza-based explanations, here’s one from Buzzfeed. Or, you can try your own hand at gerrymandering with this tool from FiveThirtyEight.
According to one calculation, Utah’s congressional districts are biased towards Republicans. According to an analysis by the AP, there are indications that Colorado’s state House map skews in favor of Democrats.
“By no means are the Rocky Mountains the worst states, but the problem of gerrymandering is one that has been growing and is one that is getting worse,” he says.
Li says the tools for analyzing and divvying up voters are getting stronger. When state legislatures are in charge of drawing the district maps with those tools, it’s like letting the fox design the henhouse.
“It's sort of counter to the vision of how most people think that democracy should work. You should be able to throw the rascals out and unfortunately, the rascals have engineered it so they never get thrown out,” he says.
But states like Colorado and Utah are part of a bigger trend to change things. This November, voters in both states will decide if they’re going to take the map-drawing power out of the hands of legislators and put it into the hands of regular citizens.
In Utah, if Proposition 4 passes, a commission would be made up of seven citizens, appointed by legislators from both sides of the aisle, plus one by the governor. It would join states like Idaho and Washington that already have political appointee commissions.
In Colorado, Amendments Y and Z are a little more extreme. They would also establish an independent commission for redistricting -- and remove partisan politicians from the picture entirely. If the amendments pass, Colorado would join California and Arizona, the only two states where independent commissions chosen by non-political entities draw voter maps for both state legislative and congressional elections.
According to the Colorado amendments, any regular person could apply to join the 12-person commission. Retired judges would narrow down the pool of applicants. Then, the judges would choose six people and the other six would be chosen by lottery from the remaining applicants. In the end, the commission would have to be made up of equal parts Republican, Democrat and independent. Much of the map-making process would take place in open hearings where the public can participate.
“Yes, that's essentially how it works,” says Kent Thiry, chairman of the Fair Maps Colorado campaign and one of the architects behind Colorado’s amendments.
By day, Thiry’s the CEO of kidney dialysis company DaVita Inc., but about a decade ago he was also involved in the overhaul of California’s redistricting system.
“If we pass this, we will probably have unambiguously the most thoughtful gerrymandering reform initiative in America,” says Thiry.
So would these measures in Utah and Colorado truly prevent gerrymandering in our states?
“Yes,” says Michael Li. “Both the Utah and Colorado proposals are smart state specific and state tailored fixes for a problem that is a growing one in our country and if they pass they will be models for states around the country.”
Most importantly, he says, both measures would make partisan gerrymandering illegal. Right now, it isn’t.
“The Supreme Court has deadlocked on the issue repeatedly and so right now there really isn't a way to go into court and say, 'This map is unfair. This map is a partisan gerrymander,'” he says.
Both of these measures would make that possible, so even if an evil mastermind found a way to game the system and get those regular citizens to gerrymander, voters would have a way to fight back.
“That's huge. The ability to go to court is absolutely huge and it's part of a growing trend,” says Li, a trend that’s especially relevant right now.
The 2020 census is right around the corner, and when those results come back it’ll be time to draw new maps.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.