Redistricting reform: How best to tackle ultra-safe districts

By Rob Richie
Published November 19th 2005 in Sacramento Bee
For years FairVote has drawn attention to the problem of lack of voter choice in our congressional elections. Our biannual reports ``Dubious Democracy'' and ``Monopoly Politics'' were among the key spurs toward recognition of the importance of the role of redistricting in tackling our pandemic of safe seats. As we pointed out in this year's edition of ``Dubious Democracy,'' we are currently experiencing the least competitive congressional elections in our nation's history, with nearly 99 percent incumbent re-election rates for five straight elections. But some big foundations and reform players skipped over the parts of our analysis that didn't fit in with their view of what is practical. They went directly from our point that the political geography of our elections is the most important factor for winners and their victory margins to suggesting that the problem could be fixed through fairer redistricting. They failed to grasp that the problem of lopsided districts is largely rooted in use of winner-take-all elections in the red and blue partisan divide that defines most of our nation.

This November, some reformers pushed redistricting reform measures in Ohio and California. Both initiatives had serious money behind them, along with political stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain and Common Cause's Chellie Pingree. And both went down in flames - California by 19 percent and Ohio by a whopping 40 percent.

So what now? We can't simply throw up our hands and let the "people's house" lose all electoral connections with the American people. But we need to be both smarter and more open to challenging ideas. We must start with two key points about the limitations of any strategy founded on maintaining all single-member districts:
  • Winner-take-all gives huge power to whoever draws the district lines. Just changing how one draws district lines means taking the power over representation from one set of political elites and giving it to another. We should give that power to voters.
  • Winner-take-all districts simply cannot accommodate three fundamental principles of free and fair elections: universal voter choice, leadership accountability and fair representation. That means anyone truly serious about the problem of lack of voter choice must confront that we have reached winner-take-all's endgame: it just doesn't work effectively in modern politics. We need some kind of multi-seat proportional voting method - ones tested around the world and in a growing number of American cities where voters have several representatives and will likely elect a representative of their choice.
Even multi-seat districts need to be drawn fairly, however, and we recognize that some states may seek to reform redistricting before moving to proportional voting methods. Redistricting reformers should do
the following:
  • Put more energy into the long slog of a congressional bill setting standards for all states at the same time - thus taking state-by-state partisan calculations off the map. Already more than 60 U.S. House members have signed onto such two such bills introduced this year.
  • Take the partisan edge out of proposals by not requiring "mid-decennial" redistricting, as tried in California and Ohio, and focusing primarily on reforming state legislative redistricting apart from congressional districting. Going after U.S. House districts can earn big dollars from those with partisan interests, but also spurs vigorous opposition.
  • Base arguments for reform on the corruption that takes place in the current process. It's simply wrong and corrupting to allow politicians to help their friends and hurt their enemies in what should be a public interest process.
  • Put traditional standards of compactness, maintaining county lines and complying with the Voting Rights Act over trying to create competition.
Voters are unlikely to like "good gerrymandering" any more than the old gerrymanders. If competition is the goal, gerrymandering isn't the answer.

In whatever reform one does, however, we must support giving all voters access to fair representation and competitive choices, not just a select few. For such protection of voters, we must move beyond winner-take-all districts to electoral methods designed for today's world, not the horse-and-buggy society of two centuries ago.