Christian Science Monitor
Redistricting abuses voter
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
January 7, 2002
Our elected leaders
have been quick to applaud Americans' renewed civic pride in
the wake of Sept. 11. Yet behind closed doors, far
too many are betraying voters' trust by manipulating our winner-take-all electoral
rules to protect their incumbency.
Although not well understood by many voters, the most
egregious tool of incumbent protection is redistricting. Whoever
controls redistricting - technically the state legislatures, but
often in practice a small number of political leaders and
consultants - has the God-like powers to guarantee not only which
political party wins a majority of seats, but also to make or break
individual political careers.
Every 10 years, redistricting arrives like a recurring
plague of locusts. After the release of new census numbers at the
start of a decade, all legislative districts across the nation must
be redrawn to ensure that they are closely equal in population.
Redrawing district lines may sound like an innocent
enterprise, but it just well may be the ugliest, most partisan part
of our politics.
The tools are powerful computers and software that are
increasingly sophisticated and precise. The tactics are "packing"
and "cracking": packing as many opponents into as few districts as
possible and cracking an opponent's natural base into different
Does redistricting make a difference? You bet it does.
In Virginia, the Democrats in 2001 won their first gubernatorial
race since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the
statehouse to a two-thirds majority. How? That's right - Republicans
drew the district lines.
Virginia is not alone. In several states, one party
has stuck it to the other - just ask a Republican mugged in Georgia
or Maryland, or a Democrat roughed up in Michigan or Pennsylvania.
But the real story of the latest redistricting cycle
has been that both parties typically have colluded to take on their
real enemy: the voters. With half the states having completed
redistricting, the past year will go down in political history for
the crass way it has raised "incumbent protection" to a new level.
Take California. The California Democratic Party
controlled redistricting, and its leaders decided to cement their
advantage rather than expand it. Incumbents took no chances.
Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez acknowledged to the
Orange County Register that she and most of her Democratic US House
colleagues each forked over $20,000 to Michael Berman, the
consultant charged by the Democratic Party to craft the
The money was classic "protection money." Sanchez
stated "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million
[campaigning] every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll
pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win
California's Republican Party, which has vociferously
opposed past Democratic redistricting plans, was largely mute this
time. That's because their incumbents also were bought off with the
promise of safe seats. The one incumbent facing a tough reelection
battle promptly announced his retirement; the rest are likely free
from serious competition for the next 10 years.
The story has been the same in state after state. The
Wall Street Journal in a November editorial titled "The Gerrymander
Scandal" estimated that as few as 30 of the 435 US House seats will
be competitive in 2002. Already, fewer than 1 in 10 House seats were
won by competitive margins of less than 10 percent in 1998 and 2000.
The ones hurt by these back-room deals are the voters.
For most, their only real choice in the next decade will be to
ratify the candidate of the party that was handed that district in
redistricting. One-party fiefdoms will be the rule no matter what
changes are made in campaign financing and term limits until we
reform the redistricting process or turn to voter-friendly electoral
systems like proportional representation.
Congress in fact has full authority to set national
standards that could at least curb the most egregious cases of
gerrymandering. Unfortunately, not a single bill has been proposed
in years to lessen the impact of politics in redistricting.
There once was a time when voters went to the polls on
the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But
that's changed. Now the representatives pick the voters first.
Following on the heels of the 2000 election debacle, this only
further undermines confidence in our political system.
Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the
executive director and the western regional director of the Center
for Voting and Democracy and co- authors of "Whose Vote Counts?"
(Beacon Press, 2001).