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Versions of this commentary also appeared in Roll Call Daily, San Francisco Examiner and other publications.

Redistricting Makes Losers of Us All
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
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 up.

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 to consider: 

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.

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