California, Florida wisely reject gerrymandering of voting districts

Voters in California and Florida approved ballot measures to reform redistricting, or the redrawing of congressional districts after each Census. They rejected gerrymandering and oddly shaped districts that reliably favor one party and return incumbents to power.

Tired of polarized politics in Congress? Voters in California and Florida are. That’s why they heartily approved ballot measures to change the way that voting districts are drawn.

The measures come just in time. Next year, states will redraw the boundaries of voting districts based on new population counts from the 2010 Census. In most states, this highly political process is decided by legislators who configure oddly shaped districts to favor their party for the next decade – until the next census.

This gerrymandering of districts, a practice that goes back to the founding of the Republic, is done these days in sophisticated ways, using computer programs to blend demographic and voter data. Similar types of voters are grouped together to reliably return incumbents to office.

Despite the “throw the bums out” sentiment of this year’s elections, about 87 percent of incumbents kept their House seats on Capitol Hill. That’s the same percentage as in 2008. A slightly higher percentage kept their seats in 2006 (89 percent) and in 2004 (91 percent).

Heavyweights that they are, California and Florida have the potential to influence other states to create more competitive districts – and a healthier democracy. Instead of having their lawmakers choose desired voters, these two states apparently want to get back to choosing their lawmakers.

In California, voters overwhelmingly backed a ballot initiative that requires a new, independent commission to use expanded mapping powers for designating voting districts for the House of Representatives.

In Florida, voters strongly favored new standards for redistricting. The areas must be compact and take into account existing city, county and geographical borders. That’s important because fair mapping means creating districts that are contiguous and compact, equal and united. These districts should reflect communities with common interests, such as schools, or important geographic features.

Weirdly shaped, gerrymandered districts have politics in common, but little else. Such mapping discourages political competition, with the result that the same politicians are returned to power year after year.

Both parties take advantage of gerrymandering, but in this coming cycle, Republicans have the clear upper hand. They made sweeping gains in statehouses and governorships, giving them a 4-to-1 advantage over Democrats in the number of House districts they will be able to shape.

Gerrymandering has a long history in the United States. It gets its name from the 1812 signing of a legislative plan by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry that put the political opposition into a salamander-shaped district (hence, Gerry-mander). In the days of the Founding Fathers, Patrick Henry penned his political rival James Madison out of a district so that Madison would have a harder time getting elected.

But just because this practice has a history doesn’t mean it should have a future. The newly elected Congress is the most polarized in recent memory: So-called blue-dog Democrats, or moderates, were tossed, leaving behind the more liberal caucus of 2008. Meanwhile, hard-line tea party Republicans were elected, making the Republican caucus more conservative. That does not bode well for compromise, which is what polls show most Americans want.

So far, only a few, lesser-populated states such as Iowa, Washington, and Arizona, have moved away from gerrymandering by giving independent bodies the power to shape districts.

But lawmakers resist such changes. In California, Democrat Nancy Pelosi helped put an alternative measure on the ballot that would have returned district-drawing power to the state legislature, which is dominated by Democrats. The ballot measure failed by a wide margin.

In Florida, it took less than 24 hours for two members of Florida’s congressional delegation to challenge the newly approved redistricting rules in court. Tellingly, one plaintiff is a Democrat, the other, a Republican. Protecting incumbency is a bipartisan interest.

Voters, if not politicians, want more competition. Let’s hope their desires are heard across the country and other states follow soon.

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