Reforming Redistricting: Why Popular Initiatives to Establish Redistricting Commissions Succeed or Fail

62 Pages Posted: 27 Oct 2009 Last revised: 19 Aug 2015

Date Written: Summer 2007


There are several ways, in theory, in which redistricting reform could be achieved. State legislatures could voluntarily cede their line-drawing authority; courts could invalidate flagrant gerrymanders; or popular initiatives could be launched to put in place neutral commissions. Unfortunately, thanks to politicians’ self-interest as well as the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Vieth v. Jubelirer and LULAC v. Perry, the last of these is now the only realistic option for curbing gerrymandering. This Article, accordingly, offers the first normative and empirical examination of redistricting initiatives.

The Article begins by explaining why initiatives are well-suited to the redistricting context, and why commissions are appealing line-drawing institutions. In short, initiatives enable voters to unblock stoppages in the political process (as Ely might put it), and to entrench their preferences through the newly created commissions. Relying on extensive archival research, the Article next analyzes all twelve redistricting initiatives that have taken place over the course of American history. The historical evidence helps illuminate why each measure succeeded or (more commonly) failed.

Finally, the Article considers the twelve initiatives holistically in order (1) to better understand the factors that account for their passage or rejection and (2) to glean lessons that reformers can apply in future campaigns. The Article’s key finding is that, contrary to the academic conventional wisdom, the measures tend to fail because of the strident opposition of the majority party in the state legislature. Conversely, the measures succeed only when some factor - e.g., favorable national developments, the enthusiastic support of the state’s media establishment, rifts between the majority party’s executive branch officers and its legislators - defuses the majority party’s resistance. Reformers, then, should wait for auspicious moments before launching initiatives, and should aim at all costs to prevent the legislative majority from unifying in opposition.

Suggested Citation

Stephanopoulos, Nicholas, Reforming Redistricting: Why Popular Initiatives to Establish Redistricting Commissions Succeed or Fail (Summer 2007). 23 Journal of Law and Politics 331 (2007), Available at SSRN:

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