a woman with dark hair past her shoulders stands in front of a projecter screen and points towards it

Last August, while Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine attended a Cincinnati Bengals training camp instead of the two public input hearings for the Ohio Redistricting Commission (of which he is a member), the Ohio Citizens Redistricting Commission (OCRC) had already held seven public hearings and was preparing to present its proposed “unity maps” for community feedback. At the time, the Ohio Redistricting Commission had just one week left before its first deadline to draft a state legislative map.

The OCRC, a citizen-led volunteer commission, was conceived just last year by the Ohio Organizing Collaborative (OOC) to help Ohioans follow along with the official redistricting process by modeling how it works from start to finish, producing both congressional and state legislative maps at its conclusion. Particularly, the commission wanted to ensure that Ohioans (especially those from communities of color) understood how everyday citizens could—and should—engage with the process. 

Historically, redistricting in Ohio has been controlled by whichever party was in power “to gain maximum political advantage,” according to a report from the League of Women Voters of Ohio and Common Cause Ohio. Even when citizens were invited last cycle to take a stab at drawing fair legislative and congressional maps in the 2011 Ohio Redistricting Competition—an effort sponsored by the Ohio Campaign for Accountable Redistricting, a coalition of 25 Ohio civil society organizations, to engage the public in the process—“public input was ignored,” according to the report, and “business as usual” persisted. 

“The districts were drawn and critical decisions were made in the backrooms outside of public view. When maps were unveiled, they were raced through the process in an effort to avoid public scrutiny,” the report read.

Comprised of 16 volunteers from different age groups, backgrounds, and regions across the state, the OCRC held public hearings every two weeks from May to September and collected 2,350 community of interest maps. The commissioners themselves convened weekly over the four months and broke out into their respective working groups (public relations, minority representation, mapping criteria, and community engagement) as needed.

“We did not take this work lightly,” said Jeniece Brock, OOC’s policy and advocacy director and OCRC’s vice chair. “It was a lot of work. We were all volunteers, but everybody was so motivated to make sure we got it right.”

Working against the same four-month delay on the release of Census redistricting data (which was only released for Ohio in mid-August) as the state’s actual redistricting body for state legislative maps, Brock says that the OCRC was not only able to meet every redistricting deadline set out in the Ohio Constitution—whereas the Ohio Redistricting Commission repeatedly missed its deadlines, including the first—but it was also able to draft maps that met the proportionality of the state’s vote share of 54% Republican and 46% Democrat. 

“The OCRC drew these maps using the same constitution, under the same conditions, and under the original constitutional deadlines,” said Brock. “They [the Ohio Redistricting Commission] missed every single deadline that was set in the Constitution to give people an opportunity to see the maps, give their feedback, and really work together to produce constitutional maps.”

But the OCRC is not affiliated with the Ohio Redistricting Commission, a seven-member politician commission comprised of five Republicans, including DeWine, and two Democrats. The Ohio Redistricting Committee is the official body legally responsible for generating Ohio’s state legislative map, and the OCRC has no direct influence on the Commission’s decision making. Nor does it have any relationship to the state legislature, which draws the federal congressional map (if the legislature reaches an impasse, then the Commission also draws the congressional map). Despite the OCRC’s exhaustive legwork to produce unity maps derived from community input, its work was largely dismissed by the majority party in the Commission when it presented its maps at a public hearing last fall, Brock said. 

But the comparison nonetheless showcased an interesting contrast of models to examine both the promises and pitfalls of using redistricting commissions to draw district lines.   

In most states, the state legislature is tasked with drawing district lines, which means that the power to shape the maps lies with a body whose members’ careers are directly impacted by how the lines are drawn. In contrast, proponents of redistricting commissions argue that they would ideally produce fairer maps that safeguard against gerrymandering by removing that inherent conflict of interest. But that depends entirely on the design of the commission, and models around the country are surprisingly diverse in their composition, the degree of power they have, and how much they’re insulated from political influence. 

In terms of membership, there are ​​independent commissions as well as “politician commissions,” in which elected officials can serve as members. Both types of commissions can be bipartisan with balanced representation among the two majority parties. For example, Virginia has a 16-member bipartisan politician commission, with eight legislators equally representing both parties and eight citizens equally representing both parties; regrettably (and predictably), in its inaugural cycle in 2021, it voted along party lines in drawing the state’s new congressional maps and reached an impasse, and then unanimously voted to adjourn permanently. 

Arizona has a five-member independent commission that’s bipartisan, in which party leaders in both legislative chambers each appoint one member from an applicant pool of 25 citizens; those four members then appoint the fifth—an independent who serves as the commission’s chair and is often the tiebreaker. 

Meanwhile, some commissions are merely advisory while the final decision on a map remains with state legislatures. Ohio’s redistricting process uses a hybrid commission system: the Ohio Redistricting Commission, the body responsible for drafting and approving the state legislative map, is comprised of politicians (including the governor, the state auditor, and the secretary of state) and unevenly split among major parties, with five Republicans and two Democrats. The Republican-controlled state legislature, which is responsible for the congressional map, at least must attempt to receive bipartisan support with its proposed map; otherwise, the task is volleyed to the commission (if the map is ultimately adopted along party lines, then it will only remain in place for four years, restarting the process again).

The commission, which has recently been charged with drafting the congressional map as well, is on its third draft of a constitutional legislative map, after the state’s Supreme Court struck down the first two attempts for violating the partisan-fairness requirement in the state constitution by skewing districts to significant Republican advantage. This latest map—which Republican commission members drafted behind closed doors and released to Democratic members and the public less than three hours before going to a vote—is currently being challenged by the National Redistricting Action Fund in the state Supreme Court.

Ohio’s system is hardly alone in its embedded flaws: states like Virginia, New Jersey, and Connecticut all have legislators serving on their commissions, and had long, arduous runs to approve maps (via the courts or a nonpartisan tiebreaker) this cycle, having never reached bipartisan consensus. 

“I think some of these commissions were very much set up to fail,” said Adam Podowitz-Thomas, senior legal strategist for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. “Having politicians sitting on the commission is sort of just asking for failure: you saw exactly what you’d expect, which was that the politicians were focused on partisan interest and not on doing what the work actually was.”

What was remarkable about the volunteer OCRC’s work over those four months, then, was that it not only demonstrated the Ohio Redistricting Commission’s willful deficiencies, but it also modeled a different system for the state: an independent, nonpartisan citizen commission, which many consider to be a promising solution to both partisan and racial gerrymandering. And there’s good reason to believe that it can be.

An avenue for public input

In several states, such as California, Arizona, Michigan, and Colorado, independent redistricting commissions (IRCs) are responsible for drawing the maps based on established standards that are meant to ensure a more transparent, impartial, and voter-centric process; they are, by their very nature, the product of redistricting reform measures. The California Citizens Redistricting Commission, for example, has a rigorous process to select its 14 members, with strict qualifications criteria and built-in requirements for transparency with the public: for example, all commission deliberations must take place during public hearings, and ample time for public comment is built into the process schedule—which, both experts and advocates say, is their main merit: their ability to incorporate public input into the redistricting process. 

“There are so many guardrails that are set up in the process,” said Christopher Lamar, senior legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. 

For communities of color especially, who are often “packed and cracked” during the redistricting process for political gain—meaning they’re either “packed” into as few districts of the opposing party as possible, or they’re spread across as many districts as possible to weaken their voting influence—having an avenue to directly advocate for their communities is essential and goes a long way to challenge attempts to dilute their political power.

“The independent commissions almost universally have been better at listening to community feedback than the legislatures have,” said Podowitz-Thomas. “For example, in both Colorado and Michigan, very specific district lines were changed based on public feedback; the commissioners had folks show up and say, ‘you should move this because we don’t think we belong in this district,’ and then the next iteration of the maps reflected that feedback. The legislature would never do that.”

In this cycle, Podowitz-Thomas said, few legislatures even had public hearing sessions; or, to the extent that they did, they were often performative. “If you’re holding a public hearing, and at the end of the hearing, you’re voting on the maps, then the hearing is meaningless,” he said. 

“I think the one thing that you find when legislators draw maps is that they tend to start with the end in mind and work backwards,” said Michael Li, senior counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program. “Whereas with commissions, we’re seeing that they tend to be much more open minded about what a good map would be.”

And public engagement in the redistricting process across states largely paralleled how much people were able to access information about it, according to Raymond Partolan, national field director at APIA Vote, a national nonpartisan organization working to increase civic engagement among Asian and Pacific Islander Americans (APIA). Last year, the organization ran a number of APIA-specific trainings in 11 states and trained more than 600 community members to participate in redistricting advocacy efforts.

“I think we saw the greatest success in terms of the community’s willingness to engage in the states that had commission-driven processes,” said Partolan. “Whenever we have independent commissions or advisory commissions—or even bipartisan commissions—there is this feeling that people’s voices will be taken into consideration to a greater degree than in a state where the legislature controls the process.”

Advisory commissions—which submit their maps to the state legislature for approval—while not binding, still hold merit in terms of modeling transparency to the public. 

“The idea behind advisory commissions is that legislatures would be ashamed to adopt a map that was significantly different from the advisory commission,” explained Li.

Last year, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project worked with both Utah’s and New Mexico’s advisory redistricting commissions in drawing maps that incorporated public input. However, in both cases, the maps were rejected by their respective state legislatures. While the outcomes were frustrating, said Podowitz-Thomas, “I do think that the fact that the commissions existed, and that their work increased pressure on the legislature, at least made citizens more aware of the redistricting process, which is a public good. That people knew that this was happening, and it didn’t just happen behind closed doors, is progress.” 

So far this cycle, IRC-generated maps were some of the most successful, reflecting demographic changes over the last decade, public input, and partisan fairness—and “without too much drama,” according to FiveThirtyEight. Out of the four states whose maps have received an overall A grade from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project and RepresentUs—for partisan bias, competitiveness and compactness—so far, three of them have IRCs drawing district lines: Colorado, Arizona, and Michigan. 

“The average grade of a politician-made map is a D, whereas that of a commission-made map is B+,” Joe Kabourek, senior campaign director at RepresentUs, told Bloomberg CityLab. “There are a whole variety of commission types, but the reality is when politicians are taken out of the process, it’s much fairer and that means more competitive districts and partisan fairness across the board.” 

California’s new election maps were unanimously approved, without any legal challenges, where about a third of the new districts are Latino-majority, reflective of Latino population growth in the state. And while the independent member was invoked as tiebreaker for Arizona’s legislative map—whose votes for and against were along party lines—its congressional map was unanimously adopted; both maps were also given an overall A grade.   

“Even if the commissions have issues,” said Partolan, “the anti-gerrymandering language that the law provides in a number of these states, at the very least, gives legal power to those people who wish to challenge maps that are ultimately adopted. So really, we would argue that having a commission is a lot better than not having one.” 

Challenges to access

While IRCs appear to be the most community-friendly model, they are still prone to inherent accessibility barriers in the redistricting process, especially for marginalized and underrepresented groups. 

For example, because IRCs rely on citizens’ volunteer labor, the time commitment can shut out those who can’t afford the child care or time off work to participate. Those barriers disproportionately impact BIPOC.  

“In these various states, [the commissions are] still more white than the states as a whole are, which is a major failing of the commissions,” said Podowitz-Thomas. “Sometimes, the communities that are really, profoundly impacted by this process don’t actually have a seat at the table.”

For example, the initial round of applicants for California’s commission, which took control of the redistricting process in the 2010 cycle, were disproportionately male, white, and from the city of Sacramento, the state’s capital, according to Li. “That’s who pays attention to redistricting,” he said.

“Sometimes, it can be hard to get people to apply to be on a commission; people may feel that they don’t have enough time or that they’re not experts in this,” said Li. “There has to be a lot of engagement from the community to make sure that you have authentic community representatives.”

Creating equitable opportunities for public comment at hearings has also proven to be a challenge. While Podowitz-Thomas concedes that commissions still did better than legislatures on providing advanced notice of hearing schedules, many habitually released their schedules on short notice, and often scheduling them during inconvenient hours—which kept many community members from providing testimony. Partolan said that, in many states, APIA Vote didn’t have enough time to effectively mobilize community members and coach them to provide their testimony in front of commissions. “That was an issue that we constantly grappled with last year,” he said.

What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed many of these public hearings to become virtual, which both opened and impeded access to the public: While the virtual setting may have alleviated geographical barriers for some, it imposed a technological barrier for others. “If you don’t have internet access—or you do have internet access, but people who are talking during the commission meeting have mask coverings and you’re hard of hearing—[those considerations] need to be thought about and fairly addressed in the future cycles,” said Lamar of the Campaign Legal Center.

Then, of course, there have been chronic language barriers at public hearings across the country, prompting advocates to send letters to commissioners last year demanding they provide language and disability accommodations. It’s a notable shortcoming, advocates say, especially when all of the country’s population growth over the last decade is attributed to people of color, making their communities’ involvement in redistricting all the more crucial. 

“When these hearings happen, and how accessible they are, is really important to who is able to show up and advocate for themselves,” said Podowitz-Thomas. “In all functions of government, there’s really only a subset of people who have access to it, so ensuring that they’re not the only voices being heard is really important.”

A level of accountability

Ultimately, however, advocates believe that public hearings provide the best forum for voters to influence the redistricting process, and commissions provided more direct access than legislatures did this cycle, for the express reason that their design intentionally provides for more public input. 

Even in New Jersey, whose system utilizes two separate politician commissions (which include sitting legislators) for each map and has minimal requirements for public input, public engagement in the process still had significant influence, said Henal Patel, director of the democracy and justice program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

“More public participation has been the biggest boon for us in terms of getting the commission to listen,” said Patel. “Having people come up and make it clear that this is an issue creates a level of accountability, and we think that’s been really helpful.”

Partolan agreed. “When it comes down to it, it’s important for people in our community to participate in these hearings, to testify, and to present community of interest maps,” he said. 

Building a record, Partolan said, is critical not only for accountability but also for community members to remain engaged. Many advocates feel challenged with keeping voters engaged in this process when it only happens once every 10 years, but holding public hearings and making sure community members have access to the commissioners reminds the communities of their influence. “Whether you are an attorney, a demographer, or a mapmaker—or if you’re just a regular citizen—everyone has a role to play.”

At present, fewer than one-fifth of states rely on IRCs to draw their congressional districts, and only about a quarter use them for legislative districts. But Podowitz-Thomas predicts that there will be stronger pushes for states to adopt the model over the next decade.

Meanwhile, in Ohio, Brock is still savoring the small gains of what the OCRC accomplished. She says that while the majority party appeared to dismiss the OCRC’s work—even expressing comments that appeared to try to delegitimize their work—the minority party ended up adopting the OCRC’s definition of a fair map and seat count after hearing the organization’s testimony. “It shows that advocacy works, that there’s power in the people,” said Brock.

And while the Ohio Redistricting Commission continues to volley drafts back and forth with the state Supreme Court, Brock still holds out hope that the Commission will use the fair map it has before it. “We did the work for you,” said Brock. “We’re not even trying to take credit. You can use it.”

Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer, editor of the Women Under Siege section (which reports on gender-based and sexualized violence in conflict and other settings) at the Women's Media Center, and a member...