Why Redistricting Threatens Democracy

Why Redistricting Threatens Democracy

It eliminates competition and guarantees incumbent power.


Redistricting is fate. It defines the destiny of candidates for Congress, state legislatures and local posts more than campaign finances, Super PACs, political trends or issues. It explains why the vast majority of races are not competitive. Though campaign strategies invariably garner more media attention, they are mere manipulations of the electoral process. Defining that process comes at the start, and it’s often made by politicians already in power. “Voters are supposed to choose their political leaders,” says Fred Kessler, a former jurist and current Wisconsin state legislator who consults on redistricting. “But in most states the politicians choose their voters.” This year national and state parties are pouring tens of millions of dollars into computerized systems and legal teams to redraw the maps in ways that remove even the slightest risk from elections. This, says the Brennan Center for Justice, has created an “epidemic of gerrymandering [that] poses a growing threat to our democracy.”

For most politicians, the goal of redistricting is to eliminate competition by pooling voters inclined to back them inside their district lines while isolating voters who might oppose them in electoral wastelands. A decade after census figures are used to draw maps, the partisan lines shape election results; thus, even in “wave” years, when “change” is the watchword, most incumbents retain their seats and most open seats are held by the party of retiring incumbents. In 2010 84 percent of House seats remained in the hands of the party that held them before election day. In many big states, district lines proved to be even more fixed; California Democrats went into the 2010 election with twenty-five State Senate seats and came out with twenty-five; Ohio Republicans started with twenty-one and finished with twenty-three. And that was in a volatile election year defined by economic uncertainty, Tea Party activism and record campaign spending.

“The lack of competition in legislative elections is nauseating,” declare election reformers Rob Richie and Steven Hill of FairVote. “Most Americans, most of the time, experience ‘no choice’ elections for their city council, their state legislature and the US House of Representatives. They live in political monopolies where there is no two-party system, let alone one with viable third parties.”

There is a growing movement to address Big Money’s manipulation of politics since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, and civil rights groups are challenging voter suppression. Meanwhile, redistricting abuse ranks low on the list of democratic concerns. That’s a bad oversight, as it is the decennial apportionment process that disenfranchises the most Americans (for its pernicious racial slant in the South, see Ari Berman on page 11).

John Stuart Mill was right when he wrote, “It is an essential part of democracy that minorities should be adequately represented. No real democracy, nothing but a false show of democracy, is possible without it.” Consider this: since 1996 Democrats have won every US House race in Massachusetts, despite Republicans’ having consistently won more than 35 percent of the vote for most of those seats. In Nebraska, Republicans have not lost a House seat since Ronald Reagan was president, even though over the same period Democrats won a third of the vote and sometimes as much as 40 percent. Fair maps and voting systems would elect Republicans in Massachusetts and Democrats in Nebraska. But that doesn’t happen under the current arrangement.

Because redistricting is invariably controlled by party insiders who are close to campaign donors, it tends to punish mavericks and narrow the debate. In Ohio, Republicans barely won 2010 elections for governor and attorney general, thus gaining control of redistricting. Prodded by House Speaker John Boehner, they gerrymandered the maps to lock in GOP gains. Representatives Dennis Kucinich and Marcy Kaptur, stalwart members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, were thrown into the same district, where they will face each other in a Democratic primary that will eliminate one of the House’s two most consistent economic populists. The Ohio map would have been even worse if reformers and labor activists had not threatened to force a “people’s veto” referendum on the GOP plan.

The Ohio referendum threat was one of several progressive efforts to challenge GOP abuses. In Texas, where growth in the Hispanic population was largely responsible for the state’s gaining four Congressional seats, Governor Rick Perry approved maps that created more districts for white conservatives while limiting prospects for Hispanics. Legal challenges by the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus appear likely to force a less egregious compromise. But for every success in tempering discriminatory plans, there has been a defeat elsewhere.

Groups like Common Cause are right to argue that redistricting decisions should be made by nonpartisan independent commissions. This model has worked reasonably well in Iowa, where it has created more competitive districts. But that’s hardly sufficient. Similarly, federal proposals to set some universal standards, such as the Redistricting Transparency Act of 2011, are worthy, but small-d democrats should think bigger. Maryland state senator and constitutional law professor Jamie Raskin, for instance, argues that the best way to end redistricting abuse is to eliminate single-member districts. Raskin proposes that US House members and state legislators be elected from multiple-member “super districts,” where proportional representation or ranked-choice voting could give voters more freedom to choose and to have choices matter. This is not a new idea: from 1870 to 1980 Illinois legislators were elected from multimember districts. As Raskin notes, “Nearly every district elected both Democrats and Republicans.” In the 1930s and ’40s, proportional representation allowed New York City voters to elect Democrats, Republicans, Socialists and Communists to the city council.

Opening up the process will require changing laws and ways of thinking. And it’s time. As reformers press for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, they should also seek to end redistricting as we know it.

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