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Tom Paine.com

Winner takes all
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
May 4, 2004

Led by U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and George Bush's political mastermind Karl Rove, Republicans last year brought the blood sport of legislative redistricting to new lows by spurring Texas and Colorado to gerrymander’Äîredraw to favor a particular party’Äîcongressional districts mid-decade. While Colorado's Supreme Court tossed out the state's plan, the Texas plan’Äîand with it potentially a Republican pickup of seven seats’Äîwas waved forward by John Ashcroft's Justice Department and the federal courts.

Now the Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue by lamenting the state of affairs, but a plurality declared there's nothing it can do about partisan redistricting. In Vieth v. Jubelirer, a challenge was made to a Republican partisan gerrymander in Pennsylvania that marked the first gerrymandering case taken by the court since 1986. In a 5-4 ruling that echoed Bush v. Gore (the breakdown of votes on the Court was the same, and the political implications for control of the U.S. House somewhat comparable), the Court rejected a Democratic challenge, making it possible that Pennsylvania Republicans will take 13 of 19 seats even as John Kerry wins the statewide vote. Rather than the hoped-for surprise knockout, Democrats and their allies must prepare themselves for a long reform brawl.

As a quick tutorial, every 10 years the U.S. Census releases new population data, and elected officials in nearly every political jurisdiction in the nation carve up the political landscape into new legislative districts to ensure representatives have an equal number of constituents.

Some cities and states have procedures to promote public interest in this redistricting process, but most do little to prevent the creation of a hodgepodge of districts gerrymandered to protect incumbents and build partisan advantage. With increasingly sophisticated computer software, polling results and demographic data, incumbent legislators quite literally choose the voters before the voters have a chance to choose them. As a result of the redistricting process, most voters are locked into 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.

Calling For Change

After years of simmering as a backburner concern for wonks and insiders, redistricting has burst onto the national scene in the wake of a sharp rise in non-competitive elections and hardened partisan lines in Congress and many states. Nearly all major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have called for reforms to provide greater fairness and voter choice, usually based on the criteria-driven process instituted in Iowa in the '80s. Unlike many reforms, fair redistricting has drawn fervent support from across the spectrum, ranging from conservatives at The Wall Street Journal and the Cato Institute to moderate Republicans like Iowa Congressman Jim Leach and Arizona Sen. John McCain and Democrats like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

It was bad enough that in 2001 both Republicans and Democrats elevated incumbent protection in redistricting to new levels. In California, for example, incumbent U.S. House Democrats paid $20,000 apiece to a redistricting consultant’Äîthe brother of an incumbent’Äîto have "designer districts" drawn for them. Republicans went along with this cozy arrangement in exchange for their own safe seats. The result was an unbroken parade of landslide wins, with no challenger to an incumbent winning even 40 percent of the vote. Nationally, only four challengers defeated House incumbents’Äîthe fewest in history’Äîwhile fewer than one in 10 races were won by competitive margins inside 55 percent to 45 percent.

The lockdown of the U.S. House has major repercussions for our political process and representative government. Elected every two years, with representatives closer to the people than senators or the president, the House was designed to reflect the will and different interests of the nation. The reality is far different. Hardly any members can be held electorally accountable, given the paucity of primary challenges (indeed, more members have died in office than lost in primaries in the last decade), lopsided general elections grounded in their incumbency advantages, and districts drawn to have a majority of voters backing their party. The growth in seats held by women and people of color has come to a standstill after a sharp rise in 1992, after the last redistricting.

Control of the House is nearly as fixed in stone as the routine 98 percent re-election rates. Since 1954, control of the U.S. House has changed just once, when Newt Gingrich and Republicans took over in 1994. Democrats gained a few seats in each election between 1996 and 2000, but Republicans cemented their grip in 2002 after dominating redistricting in several large states. Despite Democrats theoretically needing to only pick up 12 seats to regain the House, few observers believe that possible this decade without a dramatic voter surge toward Democrats. A win for George W. Bush in 2004 would make it even harder for Democrats, as it likely would lead to a wave of retirements of Democratic members whose only chance at influence is a sympathetic president.

Echos Of Election 2000

Redistricting was a key reason for Republican success in 2002. Although Al Gore won a half million more votes than George Bush in 2000, Bush carried 241 of current House districts, compared to only 194 for Gore’Äîa bias toward Republicans that at this point is tied to where the parties gain their support, with the Democratic vote more cosmopolitan and more concentrated in cities. Gore won more votes than Bush in the combined votes cast in Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but after having unfettered control of redistricting in those states, Republicans now hold a whopping 51 out of 77 seats elected from those areas’Äîincluding 18 of 25 seats in Florida. Given that Democrats hold a majority of House seats in the remaining 46 states, it's fair to say that the key elections for House control were not in 2002, but in those states' 1998 gubernatorial elections swept by Republicans who then helped dominate congressional redistricting.

Some thought Republicans just may have overplayed their hand in their relentless drive for a secure majority. Last spring, Colorado Republicans adopted a new plan to protect a vulnerable congressional incumbent merely two days after its introduction. In Texas, things reached truly wacky dimensions, involving the potentially illegal use of federal agents to apprehend 51 Democratic state legislators who had gone AWOL to prevent having a quorum that could enact the redistricting. Republican Gov. Rick Perry convened special session after special session until finally winning a plan designed to switch seven seats to his party. Those high-profile shenanigans may have been what spurred the Supreme Court to rule on the challenge to the Pennsylvania gerrymander. Gerrymandering is bad enough without the prospect of each new legislative majority adjusting lines to protects its friends and hurt their enemies after every election. But four justices (Scalia, Rehnquist, O'Connor and Thomas) made it clear they would reject any political gerrymandering claim, and the decisive fifth vote’ÄîKennedy’Äîdangled out the slimmest of hopes when he essentially said "keep fishing and maybe you'll get a bite."

Illinios' Example

So what now? Congress has every right’Äîand indeed responsibility’Äîto regulate congressional redistricting. Not doing so is analogous to allowing elected officials to count votes in their own elections behind closed doors. States also can take action on their own, and groups like Common Cause are contemplating state ballot measures.

But even with nonpartisan redistricting, the number of competitive districts around the nation would likely rise from today's dismal one in 10 seats to perhaps one in six’Äîand still do little to boost women and racial minorities. What we ultimately must do is take on winner-take-all elections, which are at the root of much of what ails the body politics. One example of how this could fit in with in American traditions comes from Illinois, which for more than a century elected its state legislature with a semi-proportional representation method. Lowering the victory threshold for candidates from 50 percent to 25 percent didn't threaten the two-party system, but it did broaden representation within the parties and promote more bipartisan policy. It also gave most voters better choices and fairer representation. Full representation is a win-win for women, racial minorities and supporters of more partisan fairness and more competitive elections. With it in place, voters’Äîrather than district lines’Äîare the key to defining representation.

The lesson from the Supreme Court is that we must win a fair democracy in the political process. With voter turnout plummeting, most of us living in thoroughly noncompetitive districts, and the "People's House" gerrymandered so that one party has dominant control, we could cancel most legislative elections and few would notice. In the '90s, an angry public lashed out by voting overwhelmingly for term limits. Now it's time for a drive to give voters real choices, new voices and fair representation.


 

 


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