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San Diego Union-Tribune

Rigging elections
The hidden scandal of redistricting

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
May 23, 2004

Last month the Supreme Court issued a decision with little fanfare that may have more impact on your representation in the U.S. Congress than any single event over the past decade. In Vieth v. Jubilirer, the Court upheld Pennsylvania's congressional redistricting plan despite all justices agreeing it was a partisan gerrymander.

The split court – there were five separate opinions – also did not challenge the fact that legislators around the nation draw partisan and incumbent protection gerrymanders that leave most voters without the means to hold their representatives accountable. But the majority saw no constitutional violation, and the inherent partisan consequences of any judicially mandated reform suggest that future courts will also have difficulty rejecting political gerrymanders. That means change in the status quo now will only come through the political process: that's you, me and our representatives elected from gerrymandered districts.

As a quick tutorial, every 10 years after the release of new census numbers at the start of each decade, all legislative districts at local, state, and federal levels must be redrawn to make sure that they are approximately equal in population, which now means about 640,000 residents per U.S. House district. Some cities and states have procedures to promote the public interest in this redistricting process, but most do little to prevent the creation of a hodgepodge of districts gerrymandered to protect incumbents and build partisan advantage. With increasingly sophisticated computer software, polling results and demographic data that have made this process of unnatural selection much more sophisticated, incumbent legislators quite literally choose the voters before the voters have a chance to choose them.

The redistricting plan typically is passed like any legislative bill, by a majority in both houses and signed by the governor. And whichever political party controls the line-drawing process in their state has the godlike power to guarantee themselves majority control and to decide who will win most races. They rely on techniques with names like "acking" and "cracking": packing as many of your opponent's voters into as few districts as possible, sacrificing those districts but making all the surrounding districts more favorable to your side; or "cracking" an opponent's voters into different districts, dividing and conquering as you go.

Does redistricting make a difference? You bet it does. Virginia Democrats in 2001 won their first statewide race for governor since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds' majority. How? That's right – for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans had been able to draw the district lines before the election. In Florida, Democrats are strong enough to hold both U.S. Senate seats and gain a virtual tie in the presidential race. But with full control of rigging the district lines, Republicans hold an overwhelming 18 of 25 U.S. House seats. In 2002, Maryland Democrats picked up two of the state's Republican's four U.S. House seats as a direct result of partisan redistricting.

The 2001 redistricting was perhaps the most flagrantly rigged insider's racket in decades.

In California, for example, incumbent U.S. House Democrats paid $20,000 apiece to a redistricting consultant – the brother of incumbent Howard Berman – to have "designer districts" drawn for them. Republicans went along with this cozy arrangement in exchange for their own safe seats. The result was an unbroken parade of landslide wins in 2002, with no challenger to any of the 50 incumbents winning even 40 percent of the vote. Nationally, only four challengers defeated House incumbents in 2002, the fewest in history, while fewer than one in 10 races were won by competitive margins inside 55 percent to 45 percent.

Perhaps most perniciously, it's a simple exercise to predict who will win easily; two days after the November 2002 elections, our center's biennial Monopoly Politics report projected winners in more than 80 percent of this year's House races based on a model that has been accurate in all but one of more than 1,250 projections since 1994.

The lockdown of the U.S. House of Representatives has major repercussions for our political process and representative government. Elected every two years, with representatives closer to the people than senators or the president, the House was designed to reflect the will and different interests of the nation. The reality is far different. The growth in seats held by women and people of color has come to a standstill, leaving women at 14 percent. Hardly any members can be held electorally accountable, given the lopsided general elections and the paucity of meaningful primary challenges.

The result is a highly partisan Congress, with most representatives' voting records closely correlating with the desires of their party leadership.

Control of the House is nearly as fixed in stone. Since 1954, control of the House has changed just once, when Newt Gingrich and Republicans took over after the 1994 elections. Democrats gained a few seats in each election between 1996 and 2000, but Republicans cemented their grip in 2002 after dominating redistricting in several large states. Despite Democrats theoretically needing to pick up only 12 seats to regain the House, few observers believe that possible this decade without a dramatic national voter surge.

A win for George W. Bush in 2004 would make it even harder for Democrats, as it likely would lead to a wave of retirements of Democratic members whose only chance at influence is a sympathetic president.

State legislative elections are even less competitive than U.S. House races. Astoundingly, of the thousands of state legislative races over the last three election cycles, a whopping 40 percent were uncontested by one of the two major parties because the districts are so lopsided it's a waste of campaign resources for the minority party to contest for these seats. That's two in five races where the only choice for voters was either to ratify the candidate of the dominant party or not vote at all. As to partisan control, not a single legislative chamber changed hands in a state where incumbents controlled the redistricting process.

Led by House Majority Leader DeLay, Republicans last year brought the blood sport of redistricting to new lows by spurring Texas and Colorado to gerrymander congressional districts mid-decade. While Colorado's Supreme Court tossed out the state's plan, the Texas plan – and with it potentially a Republican pick-up of seven seats – won approval. If the Supreme Court accepts the Texas plan, we could see incumbent legislators fine-tuning their districts after every election.

So what now? Congress has every right – and indeed responsibility – to regulate congressional redistricting and require states to establish nonpartisan commissions that draw lines based on clear criteria. Not doing so is analogous to allowing elected officials to count votes in their own elections behind closed doors.

States also can take action, and, indeed, groups like Common Cause are contemplating state ballot measures. At the very least, the redistricting process should be a very public one, with full disclosure and more media coverage and citizen input. Even better, take the redistricting process out of the hands of the incumbents and their parties, and give it to independent bodies that use non-political criteria for line-drawing. Arizona and Iowa use such "public interest redistricting" procedure with generally positive results.

But even with nonpartisan redistricting, the number of competitive districts around the nation would only rise from today's dismal one in ten seats to perhaps one in six – and still do little to boost women and racial minorities. What we ultimately must do is take on our exclusive reliance on winner-take-all elections. Winner-take-all allows one side to represent everyone with a simple majority of the vote. Most enduring democracies have rejected that model in favor of systems that would ensure a majority of voters elect a majority of seats, but also represent political minorities.

One example consistent with American traditions comes from Illinois. For more than a century Illinois voters elected their state legislature with a full-representation voting method called cumulative voting, with candidates running in bigger districts that each had three representatives. Lowering the victory threshold for candidates from 50 percent to 25 percent didn't overturn the two-party system but it broadened representation within the parties, promoted more bipartisan policy and elected more women and racial minorities.

The Chicago Tribune in 1995 editorialized that "Many partisans and political independents acknowledge that [cumulative voting] produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics." Full representation is a win-win for women, racial minorities and supporters of more partisan fairness and more competitive elections. With it in place, voters rather than district lines are the key to defining representation.

The lesson from the Supreme Court is that we must win democracy in the political process. With voter turnout plummeting and the "People's House" now gerrymandered to put most of us in thoroughly noncompetitive districts, we could cancel most legislative elections and few would notice.

In the 1990s, an angry public lashed out by voting overwhelmingly for term limits. Now it's time for a drive to give voters real choices, new voices and fair representation through reforming redistricting.

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