Election experts: CT voting districts remain non-partisan
NEW HAVEN — Legislators and election experts said at a forum on gerrymandering that Connecticut does well to avoid widespread partisan district drawing, but with a new U.S. Census coming in 2020 there are still ways to improve representation in the General Assembly.
At least two bills have been proposed this year to establish an independent committee to draw the districts during the 2021 legislative session.
Both would compel the legislature to appoint a non-partisan commission to form the boundaries after the 2020 Census results are released. Currently, legislative leaders from both parties make up the Reapportionment Commission and they agree on the appointment of one neutral member of the committee.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Republican Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said big overall gains by Republicans in 2016 and Democrats in 2018 show that there is no major obstacle right now for either party to succeed in any given election.
“Our system probably is not perfect, I think we should talk about it more, but our system does, in my view, work,” Fasano said. “Over the last four years there has been dramatic shifts both in the Senate and the House. I think that speaks to the fact that the system we have, although not perfect, was a fairly drawn system based upon the criteria we used [to draw maps in 2011].”
Both Looney and Fasano were members of the 2011 Reapportionment Commission where the biggest debate was over how to draw the Fifth Congressional District. Republicans wanted to put New Britain in the First Congressional District, but a special master appointed by the Supreme Court disagreed.
The League of Women Voters of Connecticut held the forum because of the approaching Census and because of national discussion around voting district cases in North Carolina and Maryland, said Carol Reimers, president of the state’s LWV chapter.
“We think it’s an important topic that doesn’t get much attention,” Reimers said.
The two-hour panel discussion at the Yale University Law School also included Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, Yale Law Dean Heather Gerken, and Brennan Center for Justice Principal Tom Wolf.
“Political and racial gerrymandering distorts representative democracy by allowing officials to select their voters rather than voters to elect their officials,” Reimers said.
Merrill said Connecticut is “somewhere in the middle of the pack” on legislative district drawing. The process is bipartisan but is still handled by the two parties, better than some states where the dominant party draws district lines in secret but still not as fair as states where an independent panel tackles the exercise.
“We still have a bipartisan redistricting situation, and I would argue it has largely led to pretty fair outcomes,” Merrill said.
Gerken, a leading election law scholar, said the risk in gerrymandering — redrawing district lines to favor a single party — comes from both partisan gerrymandering and bipartisan gerrymandering, where the districts favor incumbent legislators rather than a single party.
She said she’s often asked about drawing districts in a way that makes each race as competitive as possible between Democrats and Republicans, but the overall fairness of the entire legislature is more important. Trying to draw lines to evenly represent voters from both parties will have consequences on other factors like keeping communities with shared identities in the same district, she said.
“If you want to think about representation, generally the focus is on competition at the legislative level and fairness at the legislative level and less worries about what happens district by district,” Gerken said.
Wolf, an attorney who has argued national redistricting court cases, said states doing redistricting efforts well have a shared set of criteria: independence from political parties, clear rules for map drawing, racial equity, rules to promote compromise, and transparent processes with public input.
In response to a question about taking the process out of human hands and enlisting computer software to draw fair districts, Wolf said there is little support for a fully automated solution.
“Simply putting this in the hands of computers is not the way to go,” Wolf said. “You’re going to end up with a neat grid that has absolutely nothing to do with the way anyone in the state thinks of their interests or how they’d like to vote.”
He said a controlling political party could also greatly influence the computerized process, defeating the purpose of attempting an automated solution.
Looney, in response to a question seeking assurance that redistricting would not be an “incumbent protection plan,” said the “volatile” results in recent elections show that neither party is protected by district boundaries.
“We’ve had incumbents from both parties being defeated with great frequency in the last couple of elections,” Looney said. “I think it really has shown in practice not to be an incumbent protection plan but it’s one that is drawn in a realistic way.”