Remuddling the House

Needed: smaller districts and no 'safe seats'

Using population figures from the 2000 Census, state legislators have begun to redraw the boundaries of districts for the US House of Representatives.

And, as has happened ever since Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry created a salamander-shaped district for his party in 1812, cries of "gerrymandering" will be hooted about in this decidedly political, once-a-decade process.

This time around, political pressures could be stronger than ever. Republicans hold only a slight advantage in the 435-seat House, as the two parties try to influence how each of the nation's 50 state houses will draw the new lines. The outcome likely will shift the power balance in Washington after the 2002 election, and perhaps for the next decade.

Redrawing districts is, of course, necessary to accommodate shifting populations. Eight states, for instance, will be losing House seats. But more than ever, high-speed computers and the use of fine-grain demographic data from the census will allow politicians to concoct new districts that cater to incumbents and clump "types" of voters by ethnicity, political affiliation, or other stereotyping criteria.

Many districts could wind up being fundamentally noncompetitive, ensuring that most Americans will be represented by one of the major parties for at least the next 10 years.

So intense is this battle, that more lawsuits may be filed this time around than 10 years ago, when more than 40 states saw litigation related to redistricting.

Does this process ensure fair and equal representation of voters? Mostly, but not enough. Creating districts according to demographic "commonalities" rather than easy-to-understand geography does not promote a healthy pluralistic society. It divides rather than unites, lessening diversity.

If the public wants more fairness, the public will have to participate. One way to curb this "safe seat" nonsense is for citizens to monitor the work of their state legislators by designing their own ideal district maps, using the census data and simple computer software. Some states even distribute this software for free.

Such alternative districting will help reduce the mystery of the process, which many politicians would like to perpetuate.

Citizens may also want to bring up another issue about their districts. The population count for each district has become too big. The average size now hovers around 650,000 - or triple the number in 1910 - proof that congressional representatives are ever more removed from the people.

When the US population was growing from the Civil War to 1910, the House grew along with it - by 40 members or so every 10 years. Then, the growth stopped. The statute that mandates the House have 435 members should be changed. That - along with voters demanding House districts be based on simple geographic areas reflecting local diversity - will help ensure more effective political representation in Congress.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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