Versions of this commentary also appeared in
Roll Call Daily, San Francisco Examiner and other
Makes Losers of Us All
By Steven Hill and Rob
July 8, 2002
Redistricting, the once-a-decade process whereby
incumbent politicians carve out their own legislative districts to
guarantee themselves safe seats, is just about completed in all 50
states. Much ink has been printed about which side will win more
seats, Democrats or Republicans. But the real score is: Incumbents
100, Voters 0.
That's because this time around the "incumbent
protection" process was even more crass than usual. The Wall Street
Journal recently reported that incumbents so rigged their districts
that, out of 435 House districts, only 11 races are true "toss-ups"
that either side could win. Congressional analysts generally have
narrowed the field of play to 30 to 40 races. The rest of the races
are essentially done deals.
Voters don't even need to show up to the polls
anymore. And guess what? A lot of voters won't bother, having more
important things to do with their time than participate in elections
where their vote has been made irrelevant.
There probably won't be a single close general
election in such major states as Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Texas,
New Jersey or New York. Not even Florida -- symbol of the nation's
50-50 political split since the 2000 campaign -- has a race where
the Republican and Democratic candidates are given equal chances of
winning. California has only one race out of 53 considered a toss
One consequence of the small number of competitive
races is that those races will determine which political party wins
control of the U.S. House. Consequently, party leaders will flood
the close races with tons of money while ignoring those races
already locked up. Says Burdett Loomis, a political scientist at the
University of Kansas, "A lot of money will flow to a relative
handful of seats. In those seats, it's nuclear war. Twenty miles
away, there's nothing."
Who gets ripped off by this process? Why, the voters,
of course. As a result of this "incumbent protection" process, most
voters are locked down into noncompetitive one-party districts where
their only real choice at election time is to ratify the incumbent
or heir apparent of the party controlling that district. Voters no
longer pick their representatives -- our representatives now pick
us. And they do it with increasingly powerful computers, mapping
software, and databases that allow them to slice and dice the
electorate to create safe seats for themselves.
Even more than campaign finance inequities, this
incumbent-protection process is responsible for creating uninspiring
noncompetitive elections where voters have little choice. If you are
a Democrat in a solidly Republican district, or a Republican in a
solidly Democratic district, or a supporter of a minor party, you
don't have a chance of electing your candidate of choice, no matter
how much money your candidate spends. We like to think of ours as a
two party system, when in fact for most voters it's a ONE party
system -- the party that dominates their district. Demography is
destiny, it turns out.
What can be done? Here are a couple of recommendations
1) Take the redistricting process out of the hands of
the incumbents and their parties, and give it to independent
nonpartisan commissions that use non-political criteria for
line-drawing. That's how other nations do it (and a few of our
states as well), and after the Florida debacle it's time to admit
that we can learn a thing or two from other democracies.
2) Convert the U.S.-style "winner take all" voting
system to a proportional representation system. Proportional voting
systems use multi-seat districts that don't require redistricting.
Moreover, many political scientists say that proportional systems
give voters more viable choices, better representation, more
informative campaigns, and produce policy that is closer to the
"will of the majority." In 1995 the Chicago Tribune editorialized
about Illinois' previous use of such an alternative system that
"Many partisans and political independents acknowledge that it
produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics."
The redistricting process is the Achilles heel of our
winner-take-all system. It allows incumbents and party leaders to
rig most races and to ignore most voters. Following on the heels of
the Florida debacle, this cannot help but to further undermine
confidence in our already shaky political system.
Steven Hill is the western regional director of
the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure
of America's Winner Take All Politics." Rob Richie is the
Center's executive director.