by Rob Richie and Steven Hill
January 13, 1998
With the recent striking down of California's Proposition 208, which sought to limit campaign contributions to $500, many reformers are scratching their heads and wondering: what now? Are there no legal remedies for reforming campaign finance? Hundred dollar contribution limits have been struck down already in Missouri and Washington D.C.
Predictably, much reform sentiment is drifting toward public financing of elections. But doubts remain that the public is willing to foot the bill for the cacophony of noise and mudslinging that constitutes today's politics.
Fortunately, there is another reform that has the potential to forge a powerful Voters' Rights movement. It involves reform of the ultimate insider's game -- the redistricting process.
Every 10 years, the Democrats and Republicans get together in a back room and carve up the political landscape into a hodgepodge of gerrymandered districts. Quite literally, incumbent politicians use increasingly sophisticated computer software and demographic data to choose the voters before the voters have a chance to choose them.
Who gets ripped off by this process? Why, the voters, of course. As a result of the redistricting 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.
A recent study called Monopoly Politics by our nonpartisan Center for Voting and Democracy shows that 80 percent of 1996 congressional races were won by a comfortable margin of 10 points or higher, and 67 percent of races were won by landslides of 20 points or higher. This means that on election day two in three voters already knew who would win before they even stepped into the voters booth.
The redistricting process -- or shall we say the "incumbent-protection" process -- even more than campaign finance, 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.
Even when on the winning side, voters don't have a sense that their vote counts for much when their candidate always wins by a landslide. Voters of all political stripes are negatively impacted by the gerrymandering that is inherent to the redistricting process. Demography is destiny, it turns out.
In a rare moment of candor, Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the primary architect of Texas' last redistricting plan, admitted that the redistricting process "is not one of kindness. It is not one of sharing. It is a power grab."
What can be done? The next round of redistricting happens in 2001, and the major parties are already busy drawing their own maps. It is essential that the public be involved in this process. There are several options to consider, ranging from the moderate to the profound:
1) At the very least, the redistricting process should be a very public one, with full media coverage and citizen input.
2) Take the redistricting process out of the hands of the incumbents and their parties, and give it to an independent nonpartisan commission that uses non-political criteria for line-drawing. This has been done in Iowa since 1981, and has resulted in somewhat more competitive elections.
3) Create three-seat legislative districts using a semi-proportional voting system. From 1870 to 1980, Illinois used cumulative voting in three-seat districts to elect its lower house. This relatively minor modification of winner-take-all rules had a profound impact on Illinois politics. Nearly every district had two-party representation, giving voters more choice, better representation and creating more competition. In 1995 the Chicago Tribune editorialized in support of cumulative voting's return, writing that "Many partisans and political independents have looked back wistfully at the era of cumulative voting. They acknowledge that it produced some of the best and brightest in Illinois politics."
4) Convert the U.S.-style "winner take all" voting system to a proportional representation system. Proportional voting systems are used by most of the established democracies in the world because, according to many political scientists, they give voters more viable choices, allow more voters to win representation, produce policy that is closer to the "will of the majority," and consequently produce higher voter turnouts. Also, proportional systems use multiseat districts that don't require redistricting (for more information about proportional systems, visit the PR index.
Those voters disappointed by the courts' hostility toward campaign finance reform can take heart. The redistricting process is the Achilles heel of our winner-take-all system. With the next re-gerrymandering set for 2001, a movement for reforming this process has a natural rallying cry that fits with our nation's democratic impulse: "This time, let the voters decide."