Drawing the Line On Redistricting

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Published July 1st 2003 in Washington Post
Gerrymandering has become a "Friday the 13th" horror movie. Just when we thought it was over, it returns, like the implacable, hockey-masked villain, refusing to die. Its latest resurrection is in Texas, where the state legislature is meeting in special session as part of a brazen bid to protect the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It was bad enough that in 2001 both Republicans and Democrats elevated incumbent protection in redistricting to new levels. California's House Democrats paid $20,000 apiece to a redistricting consultant -- the brother of an incumbent -- 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 Pennsylvania and Michigan, Republicans gained seats by forcing several Democrats to run against each other, cannibalizing their own. Maryland Democrats finally took out Connie Morella by putting her in a district where Al Gore had won two-thirds of the vote.

Power grabs and incumbent protection plans occurred in state after state, at both congressional and state legislative levels. The real losers were voters, left with overwhelmingly choiceless elections. The inevitable churning that comes with redistricting usually increases competition, at least for one or two elections. But more than 37 percent of state legislative incumbents were uncontested -- nearly as many as before redistricting. Voters booted out the incumbent party in half of gubernatorial races, but not a single legislative chamber came under new control except in the relatively few states where courts or commissions drew the lines.

The U.S. House of Representatives was no better: Only four challengers defeated incumbents, the fewest in history, while fewer than one in 10 races were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percent. Women and members of racial minority groups made little to no gain in representation, in stark contrast to dramatic increases in the post-redistricting elections of 1992.

Using sophisticated computers, polling and databases to draw the legislative lines with unprecedented precision, party leaders and incumbents essentially did away with elections. For the rest of this decade, the only choice most voters will have in House races is to ratify the nominee -- usually the incumbent -- of the party that was handed their district.

Now along come such Republican leaders as Tom DeLay and Karl Rove in relentless search of a secure House majority. Only two years after redistricting was completed, Republican-controlled Colorado redrew congressional district lines, and Rove and DeLay are pushing Texas to follow suit. Call it re-redistricting.

In Colorado, Republicans solidified their hold on congressional seats by adopting a new plan merely two days after its introduction. The Republican winner of the nation's closest congressional race in 2002 was given a brand-new safe seat that conveniently removed his 2002 opponent. The Democratic attorney general has taken the remarkable step of suing his own state. In Texas, things already have reached truly wacky dimensions, involving the potentially illegal use of federal agents to apprehend 51 Democratic legislators who had gone AWOL to prevent having a quorum that could enact the redistricting. Now Gov. Rick Perry has convened a special session to deal with the question. Expect a partisan brawl.

It's time to reform our winner-take-all elections. Congress has full authority to regulate redistricting and could at least curb the worst abuses of voter choice. States should require clear criteria to govern redistricting. But the only lasting solution is to replace winner-take-all elections with full-representation electoral systems in multi-seat districts, which makes voters rather than district lines the key to defining representation.

With turnout plummeting and most of us living in thoroughly noncompetitive districts, we could cancel most legislative elections and few would notice. But then perhaps our leaders think we have more important things to worry about than voting. It's in their interest to act as if we do.

Steven Hill is a senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics." Rob Richie is executive director of the center.