Make Redistricting More Than 'a Power Grab'

Recently, California's Proposition 208, which sought to limit campaign contributions to $500, was struck down. That has left many reformers scratching their heads and wondering: What now? Are there no legal remedies for reforming campaign finance? Hundred-dollar contribution limits already have been struck down in Missouri and Washington.

Predictably, much reform sentiment is drifting toward public financing of elections. But doubts remain that the public is willing to foot the bill for the cacophony of noise and mudslinging that constitutes politics today.

Fortunately, there is another reform that has the potential to forge a powerful voters' rights movement. It involves reform of the ultimate insider's game - the redistricting process.

Every 10 years, the Democrats and Republicans get together in a back room and carve up the political landscape into a hodgepodge of gerrymandered districts. Quite literally, incumbent politicians use increasingly sophisticated computer software and demographic data to choose the voters before the voters have a chance to choose them.

Who gets ripped off by this process? The voters, of course. As a result of the redistricting process, most voters are locked into one-party districts where their only real choice at election time is to ratify the incumbent or heir apparent of the party controlling that district.

A recent study called "Monopoly Politics" by our nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy shows that 80 percent of 1996 congressional races were won by a comfortable margin of 10 points or more, and 67 percent of races were won by landslides of 20 points or more. This means that on election day, 2 of every 3 voters already knew who would win before they stepped into the voting booth.

The redistricting process - or the "incumbent protection" process - is responsible for creating uninspiring noncompetitive elections where voters have little choice. If you're a Democrat in a solidly Republican district, or a Republican in a solidly Democratic district, or a supporter of a minor party, you don't have a chance of electing your candidate of choice.

Even on the winning side, voters don't have a sense that their vote counts for much when their candidate always wins by a landslide. Voters of all political stripes are negatively impacted by the gerrymandering that's inherent to the redistricting process.

In a rare moment of candor, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) of Texas, the primary architect of her state's last redistricting plan, admitted that the redistricting process "is not one of kindness. It is not one of sharing. It is a power grab."

So what can be done? The next round of redistricting happens in 2001, and the major parties already are busy drawing their own maps. It is essential that the public be involved in this process. There are options to consider, ranging from the moderate to the profound:

1. Make the redistricting process a very public one, with full news media coverage and citizen input.

2. Take the redistricting process out of the hands of the incumbents and their parties and give it to an independent, nonpartisan commission that uses nonpolitical criteria for line-drawing. This has been done in Iowa since 1981, resulting in somewhat more competitive elections.

3. Create three-seat legislative districts using a semiproportional voting system. From 1970 to 1980, Illinois used cumulative voting in three-seat districts to elect its lower house. This modification had a profound impact on Illinois politics. Nearly every district had two-party representation, giving voters more choice, better representation, and creating more competition. In 1995, the Chicago Tribune editorialized in support of cumulative voting's return, saying, "Many partisans and political independents have looked back wistfully at the era of cumulative voting. They acknowledge that it produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics."

4. Convert the US-style "winner-take-all" voting system to a proportional representation system. Proportional voting systems are used by most of the established democracies in the world because they give voters more viable choices, allow more voters to win representation, produce policy that is closer to the "will of the majority," and consequently produce higher voter turnouts. Also, proportional systems use multiseat districts that don't require redistricting.

Those voters disappointed by the courts' hostility toward campaign finance reform can take heart. The redistricting process is the Achilles heel of our winner-take-all system. With the next gerrymandering set for 2001, a movement to reform this process has a natural rallying cry that fits with our nation's democratic impulse to let the voters decide.

* Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy ( in Washington. Steven Hill is the center's West Coast director.

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