Lawmakers push for more competitive elections
Independent commissions sought to make legislative redistricting process nonpartisan

By Mike Madden
Published August 17th 2005 in The Olympian
WASHINGTON -- Last year's elections were the least competitive in history, with far more landslides and uncontested races than nail-biters. Voters often had no real choice as they picked their representative in the part of the federal government that's supposed to be the most responsive to the people.

One reason is that lawmakers' districts in most states are drawn up in a highly partisan process designed to keep incumbents safe.

Now several lawmakers are proposing to change that by making independent commissions, not elected officials, in charge of remapping House districts every 10 years. A handful of states -- Washington, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana and New Jersey-- do use independent commissions to draw districts.

If the lawmakers succeed, the result could be closer elections, higher turnout, more upsets by challengers and a political system that better responds to what voters want, they say.

"Rather than the constituents electing the members of the legislatures across the land and the Congress, the members of the Congress and legislatures elect their constituents," said Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., the measure's chief sponsor.

Redistricting abuses

Every 10 years, after the Census Bureau completes its survey of the U.S. population, House districts are redrawn to reflect where people live. For years, state legislatures have done the mapmaking -- leaving the process open to political maneuverings designed to give one party an edge. That's known as "gerrymandering," after Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts lawmaker who pioneered the practice in the early 1800s, drawing districts his opponents said were shaped like salamanders.

Even in modern times, the districts that legislators produce can look like ink blot tests -- with borders that snake along highways and zigzag to grab chunks of different counties to help incumbents keep their voters together. With sophisticated computer programs that analyze voting patterns and demographic data, mapmakers design districts almost guaranteed to elect members from a particular party. In the process, neighbors who share the same local problems and concerns can wind up being represented by different lawmakers.

Landslide elections

Out of 435 House seats, only 10 elections were decided by fewer than 5 percentage points last fall, according to a study by FairVote, a nonpartisan group working to promote more competitive elections. Only seven incumbents lost their seats to challengers, and only 13 seats switched from one party to the other.

It was the least competitive election ever for House races, the group found.

The Center for Voting and Democracy, which operates FairVote and conducted the study. showed some of the states with independent commissions, especially Washington and New Jersey, had more competitive elections than most other states, but in others, it made little difference.

The national reform proposal has 40 sponsors, mostly Democrats but some Republicans. But it faces a tough battle in the House, where leaders on both sides have been reluctant to endorse a plan that could make their members more vulnerable in future elections. It hasn't even been scheduled for a hearing.

Some of the states with the least competition, according to the group's study:

  • Tennessee, where every incumbent won re-election last year, beating challengers by an average margin of 48 percentage points.
  • Florida, where incumbents have won all but one of the past 140 House elections. Last year, five of Florida's 25 lawmakers didn't even have to appear on the ballot. Their return to Congress was guaranteed when no one ran against them.
  • California, where every incumbent who ran for re-election in 2002 and 2004 won.