WASHINGTON -- Calling for a systematic change to American politics in Tuesday's State of the Union, President Barack Obama gave a somewhat surprising shout-out to bipartisan redistricting reform.
"I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around," he said, before going off script to add, "Let a bipartisan group do it."
Advocates of redistricting reform were pleased to hear the president validate their issue, but they cautioned that sweeping change at the national level isn't likely anytime soon.
"I'm sure not what he's proposing will get done in Congress. This is a state-by-state issue. But the president discussing this -- and he's not the first president to do so -- is evidence of the changing tide on this," said Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, which advocates for the creation of an independent nonpartisan commission to draw Virginia's district lines.
Obama's larger argument was that America's political system -- from campaign finance to voting rights access -- needs fixing. He vowed to travel the country this year to push for reforms that increase access to the ballot box.
Redistricting reform doesn't typically get the same bully pulpit treatment. "There are windows where people want to pay attention to redistricting," said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center's Democracy Program. "It's not an issue that has the emotional resonance of an 80-year-old widow denied the right to vote."
But the biggest obstacle to redistricting reform, Cannon said, is a lack of awareness of the issue. "There are not too many politicians who want to say, 'I love manipulating my district to get re-elected.'"
Obama's comments about redistricting moved Democratic lawmakers to their feet Tuesday night. The party's hold on state legislatures has been waning, which is often blamed for their being gerrymandered out of House seats when GOP-controlled legislatures draw district lines. Late last year, the Democratic Governors Association, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee convened its first joint redistricting summit to prepare for 2020 redistricting.
The party has had some legal victories ahead of November's elections. In Virginia, a state that Obama carried twice, Democrats hold just three of the state's 11 House seats. But the party is optimistic that a new congressional map that gives African-Americans a chance to elect candidates of their choice in two districts instead of one will help them pick up another seat. (The Supreme Court could still intervene.) And in Florida, Democrats are likely looking at a net gain with the implementation of a new court-approved map.
But gerrymandering isn't just a Republican phenomenon. "The Democratic Party has to realize this is a problem in their house too," Cannon said.
Nor is redistricting reform a uniquely Democratic platform.
Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who's running for the GOP presidential nomination, has been outspoken on redistricting reform, telling the Columbus Dispatch late last year, "I support redistricting reform dramatically."
In Maryland, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan created a redistricting reform commission that recently recommended an independent panel draw the state's maps. Similar movements have sprouted across the country and have been gaining momentum since June, when the Supreme Court upheld the congressional map that an independent commission drew in Arizona.
"There really is a renewed effort to say, 'Maybe we could fix this,"' Li said. Voters in states as different as South Dakota and Illinois will vote on ballot initiatives next fall that would move the responsibility of drawing district lines to independent commissions.
"What we've seen time and time again, when voters have the opportunity to vote on reform, they almost always overwhelmingly approve it," Li said. Currently, he said about a dozen states have some sort of independent redistricting commission.
"It just doesn't strike people as really fair," Li said of politicians being in charge of drawing their own districts. "It would be sort of like the Dallas Cowboys getting to referee their own game."
The Supreme Court heard arguments this winter in another major redistricting case that has the potential to make unconstitutional every state legislative district in the country. At issue in Evenwel v. Abbott, a case out of Texas, is whether districts should be based on total population, as they currently are, or the number of eligible voters. A ruling is expected in June.