Redistricting abuses voter trust

Our elected leaders have been quick to applaud Americans' renewed civic pride in the wake of Sept. 11. Yet behind closed doors, far too many are betraying voters' trust by manipulating our winner-take-all electoral rules to protect their incumbency.

Although not well understood by many voters, the most egregious tool of incumbent protection is redistricting. Whoever controls redistricting - technically the state legislatures, but often in practice a small number of political leaders and consultants - has the God-like powers to guarantee not only which political party wins a majority of seats, but also to make or break individual political careers.

Every 10 years, redistricting arrives like a recurring plague of locusts. After the release of new census numbers at the start of a decade, all legislative districts across the nation must be redrawn to ensure that they are closely equal in population.

Redrawing district lines may sound like an innocent enterprise, but it just well may be the ugliest, most partisan part of our politics.

The tools are powerful computers and software that are increasingly sophisticated and precise. The tactics are "packing" and "cracking": packing as many opponents into as few districts as possible and cracking an opponent's natural base into different districts.

Does redistricting make a difference? You bet it does. In Virginia, the Democrats in 2001 won their first gubernatorial race since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds majority. How? That's right - Republicans drew the district lines.

Virginia is not alone. In several states, one party has stuck it to the other - just ask a Republican mugged in Georgia or Maryland, or a Democrat roughed up in Michigan or Pennsylvania.

But the real story of the latest redistricting cycle has been that both parties typically have colluded to take on their real enemy: the voters. With half the states having completed redistricting, the past year will go down in political history for the crass way it has raised "incumbent protection" to a new level.

Take California. The California Democratic Party controlled redistricting, and its leaders decided to cement their advantage rather than expand it. Incumbents took no chances.

Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez acknowledged to the Orange County Register that she and most of her Democratic US House colleagues each forked over $20,000 to Michael Berman, the consultant charged by the Democratic Party to craft the redistricting plan.

The money was classic "protection money." Sanchez stated "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million [campaigning] every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in."

California's Republican Party, which has vociferously opposed past Democratic redistricting plans, was largely mute this time. That's because their incumbents also were bought off with the promise of safe seats. The one incumbent facing a tough reelection battle promptly announced his retirement; the rest are likely free from serious competition for the next 10 years.

The story has been the same in state after state. The Wall Street Journal in a November editorial titled "The Gerrymander Scandal" estimated that as few as 30 of the 435 US House seats will be competitive in 2002. Already, fewer than 1 in 10 House seats were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percent in 1998 and 2000.

The ones hurt by these back-room deals are the voters. For most, their only real choice in the next decade will be to ratify the candidate of the party that was handed that district in redistricting. One-party fiefdoms will be the rule no matter what changes are made in campaign financing and term limits until we reform the redistricting process or turn to voter-friendly electoral systems like proportional representation.

Congress in fact has full authority to set national standards that could at least curb the most egregious cases of gerrymandering. Unfortunately, not a single bill has been proposed in years to lessen the impact of politics in redistricting.

There once was a time when voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But that's changed. Now the representatives pick the voters first. Following on the heels of the 2000 election debacle, this only further undermines confidence in our political system.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy and co- authors of "Whose Vote Counts?" (Beacon Press, 2001).

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