Redistricting Will Be a Lawyer's Dream - and a Voter Nightmare
Rob Richie and Steven Hill
The partisan struggle over the use of statistically adjusted data from the U.S. Census to avoid "undercounts" was just a warmup for the real game: the redistricting of thousands of legislative districts across the country.
Once the census data is provided to states this month, legislative districts must be redrawn to ensure they are equal in population. With few public interest checks on their near God-like power in drawing state legislative and congressional districts, incumbents use increasingly sophisticated computer software and demographic data to literally choose the voters before the voters have a chance to choose them.
Moreover, political parties with full control of the process in a state -- such as Democrats in California and Republicans in Pennsylvania and Ohio -- can seek to cement their power. By using techniques like "packing," whereby lines are drawn to concentrate many supporters of political opponents into a few districts, and "cracking," where opponents' supporters are split among several districts, they can dramatically heighten their chances for the next decade.
Jim Nicholson, former chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), stated last year, "The winners [of the state legislatures] are going to determine the political landscape in at least the first decade of the next millennium, because they are the people who are going to preside over the process of reapportionment and redistricting of their respective states as a result of the 2000 census."
With so much at stake, Democrats and Republicans are preparing to claw like cats and dogs -- especially in the courts. "There's going to be a race to the courthouse," says Stanford law professor Pam Karlan. "The redistricting process following 2000 is going to be more of a litigation-driven process than it was in the past." Caltech professor J. Morgan Kousser says, "Redistricting in 2001 is going to be the greatest bonanza for lawyers since the founding of the New Deal."
More hearings, more lawsuits, more investigations. Sound familiar? The fragile "bipartisanship" of the past month is sure to evaporate under the torrid heat of redistricting.
Who gets ripped off by this process? The voters, of course. As a result of the redistricting process, most voters become 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.
In 2000, for example, 78% of U.S. House seats -- nearly four out of five -- were won by landslide margins greater than 20 percentage points. Only 38 seats -- less than 9 percent -- were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percentage points, the lowest figure since 1988. Most big wins were in districts where one party has a lopsided partisan advantage.
Like a Soviet-type Politburo, nearly 99 percent of House incumbents won re-election. A whopping 41% of state legislative races were not contested by one of the major parties. Is this any way to run a democracy?
Redistricting -- or shall we say the "incumbent protection process" -- is the leading cause of uninspiring, choice-less elections. 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 everywhere, you don't have a chance of electing your candidate. Demography is destiny, it turns out.
What can be done? Redistricting will happen over the next year, and the partisan technocrats already are drawing their maps, but there are several options to consider:
1) At the least, redistricting should be a public process, with full media coverage and citizen input.
2) Redistricting should be taken out of the hands of the incumbents and given to independent commissions guided by non-political criteria. Arizonans recently voted to implement such a citizen review procedure.
3) Replace single-seat districts with multi-seat legislative districts and adopt a proportional voting system. This would give all voters better choices, better representation and foster more competition. Nearly every multi-seat district would have full representation, instead of the safe, one-party districts we have now.
With re-gerrymandering nearly underway, a movement for reform has a natural rallying cry that fits with our nation' s democratic impulse: "This time, let the voters decide."