Why Redistricting and Campaign Reform Are Both Still Relevant

By Mark Schmitt
Published November 10th 2005 in TPM Cafe
I promised to comment on Josh's statement on TPM that he was disappointed in the defeat of nonpartisan redistricting initiatives in California and Ohio because he has come to consider redistricting a reform even more important than campaign finance reform. I"ve moved somewhat in the opposite direction, and I"ll explain why.

When I first got involved in issues of political reform, around 1995, political reform was synonymous with reducing the influence of money on elections. That was the main thing, everything else -- redistricting, election-day voter registration, vote-by-mail -- was an afterthought, which I thought was short-sighted. There were a couple of different ways of getting at money in politics, mainly a choice between limiting contributions, and an emerging movement toward full public financing of elections. After the contested election of 2000, the range of electoral reforms widened out dramatically, including such basic issues as providing reliable voting machines. Then, earlier this year, nonpartisan redistricting emerged as a central focus, almost as campaign finance reform had been a few years earlier.

I get very frustrated with a fight over which reform is "more important" to a working democracy, finance reform, redistricting, or issues such as universal voter registration or voter i.d. requirements. They're important and interrelated, and that's not just a bullshit "everything's connected" kind of statement. Just take the two issues of districting and money. The small number of demographically contested races dramatically increases the arms-race mentality on the few targetted races, and in turn, the financial advantage of incumbents dramatically narrows the field of contested races. It's a loop, and if you could decisively break either factor, you would start to change the system.

So the question is which is easier to break? Districting is going to be a more difficult problem to fix. I say that not just because Tuesday's election results show that nonpartisan redistricting is a tough sell, but because the payoff is relatively small. Nonpartisan redistricting in Arizona and Iowa has had relatively little effect on competition, certainly not for the U.S. House of Representatives and not in the legislatures either. The Ohio initiative would have been a fascinating experiment, taking the state from a system of highly partisan (Republican) gerrymandering to a system that was not only non partisan but that, unlike any other system, put an absolute premium on competitiveness. (Under the failed proposal, anyone could propose a map, and the maps would be scored by computer for the number of competitive districts they would create, competitve defined as a 47-53 range. The nonpartisan commission would have had to choose from the three top-scoring maps.) Even this experiment was likely to produce only a handful of more competitive districts, and its defeat means that such a radical approach is unlikely to be tried anywhere else.

(Nor is it clear to me that this heavy priority on competitiveness would have led to the best representative democracy. I assume that the easiest way to ensure a competitive district would be to attach a heavily Democratic area to a heavily Republican one, so, for example, a district might graft together some African-American neighborhood of Cleveland with Shaker Heights or whatever the Republican exurb is that best illustrates my point. (I know almost nothing about Cleveland!) There might be a spirited competition between candidates from each half of the district, won by the one with the strongest turnout in his half, not necessarily by the one who reaches across the divide. And if a candidate does reach across the divide, the district won't seem as competitive anymore!)

Josh raises and rebuts a kind of straw man argument against redistricting -- the claim that people increasingly move to be with people who are more ideologically like themselves, and therefore that districts are becoming more strongly partisan by nature. There's a little evidence that that's occurring as a side-effect of other economic trends. But that's irrelevant. The fact is that most single-member, winner-take-all districts are going to have some partisan preference or another, at all times, and are not likely to be that competitive. The difference in competitiveness between neutrally drawn districts, a bipartisan gerrymander drawn to protect incumbents (the most common form), and a partisan gerrymander such as Texas or Ohio, is trivial. In fact, the partisan gerrymander might actually create a few more competitive districts, as in Texas last year. The only times when districts reliably seem to be competitive is when they are in transition from one allegiance to another. So, for example, in the late 1980s, districts in the Carolinas and Georgia were competitive as they slowly began to shed their historical attachment to Democrats; today the most competitive districts are likely to be wealthy Northeastern districts whose moderate Republican representatives have worn out their welcome. (Three of Connecticut's five districts should be competitive next year, for example.)

One good theoretical answer to the limited value of redistricting along is to go even further, and get rid of winner-take-all elections and single-member districts. Imagine, for example, a  congressional district around the Cleveland metro area incorporating the city and its suburbs, electing four representatives by some form of preference voting. Most of the seats, and certainly the fourth, would be potentially competitive, and there would be significant incentives for candidates to reach beyond their natural bases to be at least the second and third choices of voters in other areas of the district or with other viewpoints.  (For more on this and related reforms, the best resource is always Fair Vote, formerly the Center for Voting and Democracy. They even have a separate page showing how these multi-member districts might work in any state. (I made up my example before looking at this page.))

Most of these alternatives are constitutionally allowable, but they are just not on the radar screen of people working on redistricting reform. And they are even more radically disruptive to the existing order than the Ohio initiative. (That's the whole point.) So one faces a choice: Do you say that redistricting might be a good idea, if you're willing to go well beyond what anyone's thinking about now and include multi-member districts and preference voting? Or do you try to move those ideas into the mainstream while also pushing hard on campaign finance reform?

I tend toward the second position. Keeping the sphere of democracy separate from the inequalities of the economic sphere is always a fundamental reform, and one that needs constant policing. And money -- or, more accurately, the absence of it -- is at least as formidable a barrier as districting. Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz and colleagues put out a paper last year trying to measure the relative importance of money, gerrymandering and naturally increased partisanship in reducing competition and concluded that money was the most important factor. I raised some questions about their methodology as it applies to redistricting here, but on the whole, it's a good paper. The kind of campaign finance reform I'm interested in is not just the McCain-Feingold type that sets limits on large corrupting contributions, but initiatives whose principle objective is to make it easier for people who don't have access to those big dollars to run for office. That can be full public financing systems like those in Arizona or Maine, or systems that match small contributions, such as New York City's system that adds a four to one match to every contribution of $250 or less. And we need to find ways for reform to enhance the role that the Internet can play in helping candidates find sympathetic small donors, rather than treating the internet purely as a loophole to be closed. (There's more to say about that as well.)

To sum up, I think that both campaign finance reform and redistricting reform have to be part of opening up American politics. But on both, we need some fresh thinking and new strategies. On neither are we on the verge of big change. But I do think that because of the successful models such as Arizona and New York City, we are closer to a breakthrough on campaign finance reform than on redistricting, and I think that what's achievable now would make a bigger difference.