First, let me say that I am generally skeptical of "non-partisan" and selflessly "civic-minded" commissions. If you ask a group of people to do something that is inherently partisan and political, the group will tend to become partisan and political. Those who are intensely interested in the process will attempt to capture the "non-partisan" agency and they will often succeed. When they do, the only thing that has been accomplished is that the politics will have been driven underground and out of view.
Me? I'd rather have it out in the open.
Jay cites Iowa. I'll cite California where a "non-partisan" commission has been met with lawsuits and repeal referenda.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, when it comes to redistricting, there are not a set of agreed upon and non-contradictory criteria for drawing district lines that are, as Jay puts, "according to community interests.
For example, Jay wants to avoid oddly shaped districts in favor of those that are "contiguous and compact." But there are, in any redistricting year, countless ways to do draw such districts. And, contrary to Jay's implication, the GOP plan was not full of oddly shaped districts. There will always, in the give and take of drawing a plan, be a few oddities. But I show my Election Law students numerous examples of Rorschach blot districts - all of which have been upheld. In comparison, the GOP plan looked like a checkerboard.
Even contiguous and compact districts can run afoul of other redistricting goals. They may, for example, be less competitive and even weighted toward the GOP. Nationally and in Wisconsin, Democratic voters are far more likely to be highly concentrated. Many experts believe that a”checkerboard" district will tend to "pack" Democratic voters and favor Republicans.
What about promoting competitive districts? Well, that may require dividing natural communities of interest, i.e., communities of voters facing similar issues who will often vote the same way. For example, critics of the GOP plan objected to its division of Racine and Kenosha counties. But the result - combining rural and suburban voters into one district while placing urban voters in another would seem more consistent with preserving communities of interest - which are not necessarily - or even likely - to follow municipal boundaries.
It is because there is no way to define what is a "non-partisan" and "public spirited plans" that courts are reluctant to entertain claims of a partisan gerrymander. That is why I told the legislature last July that the plan would not be susceptible to challenge as a partisan gerrymander.
It is unclear that a supposedly "non-partisan" commission would do any better or that we would even have a standard by which to assess that question. Politics would still be there. We'd just have a harder time seeing it.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.