Every ten years, after the U.S. Census releases its latest population reports, most of the 50 states begin the complicated process of drawing new election districts. As you might expect, partisan bickering and maneuvering inevitably distort things. So a decade ago, Arizona voters decided to end the partisanship by removing the redistricting process from the state legislature and placing it in the hands of an independent commission. Last year, the new commission, consisting of two Democrats, two Republicans, and a nonpartisan chair, got to work on its first set of maps after the 2010 census. Unfortunately, the results were anything but nonpartisan. The independent chair sided consistently with the two Democrats, essentially giving them control over the makeup of the congressional and state legislative maps. Lawsuits were launched, along with a push by Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, to impeach the chair. The new maps, if let stand, “could reshape the state’s political landscape” in the Democrats’ favor, the Arizona Republic reported. Already, state lawmakers are looking at doing away with the commission or significantly changing it.
Arizona isn’t alone. In many states, including those where reformers had tried to make the process less political, redistricting has already determined the outcome of this year’s races for Congress and state legislature. In part, blame naivety for the reformers’ failure: redistricting isn’t easily drained of partisanship. But federal election law—especially the Voting Rights Act, which mandates a certain amount of legal gerrymandering to reach preferred racial outcomes—shares some of the blame. Though some states are inching toward ways of carving out fairer, less politicized electoral maps, reform is slow, and scheming over election districts remains nearly as important as it ever was to politicians’ fortunes, the composition of state legislatures, and even control of the U.S. House of Representatives.