National Guidelines Needed to Ensure Fair House Districts

By John Anderson and Rob Richie
Published April 10th 2005 in San Jose Mercury News
Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, Democrats and Republicans escalate their bitter partisan warfare. The latest example is ``re-redistricting'' -- a new twist on how to turn the seemingly esoteric process of creating equal population legislative districts into a continuing battle over political power. Before states throw all considerations of electoral cohesion, traditional redistricting principles and political fairness out the window, we must establish clear national standards.

Insiders for decades have known how powerful redistricting can be for elected officials to protect friends and undermine opponents. It's a blood sport that both parties have exploited. But at least the damage to our democratic values historically was confined to once a decade in the wake of a new federal census.

Texas sparks brush fire

Then along came House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's infamous drive in 2003 to undo his home state of Texas' incumbent-protection gerrymander with a Republican plan adopted over the objections of increasingly desperate Democratic state legislators. The Democrats' flight to neighboring states drew national attention, but it was Texas Republicans' successful attainment of six U.S. House seats that caused party leaders to salivate.

In Georgia, Republican legislators have passed a plan revising the Democrats' 2001 congressional district plan. They piously defend the proposed lines as more compact, but their primary motivation is clear: two more Republican House seats in 2006.

Democrats are poised to retaliate. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer is no stranger to effective gerrymandering -- Democrats in his state of Maryland used redistricting to oust two Republicans in 2002 -- and has spoken with several Democratic governors about redrawing congressional lines. Don't be surprised if we soon see re-redistricting drives in Democratic-run Illinois, Louisiana and New Mexico.

The only upside of re-redistricting is its potential to provide more steam to a rapidly growing movement to establish redistricting commissions to draw lines based on public interest rather than partisan. In states such as Massachusetts, New York and Wisconsin, lawmakers seek to drain the politics from redistricting and perhaps add more competition in elections.

But even non-partisan redistricting can be a partisan tool. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has thrown his weight behind a ballot measure to establish a non-partisan commission to redraw California's districts and put some currently impregnable congressional Democrats at risk before the 2006 elections. When a party doesn't have the votes to do its own plan, it obviously would prefer a group of retired judges to draw non-partisan lines than leaders of the other party.

Indeed, the redistricting problem can't be solved by any one state. No matter what states like California, Georgia and Louisiana do, we will be left with a mismatched patchwork of standards across the country. What's fair in the context of one state can be nationally unfair if non-partisan redistricting is done only in one party's strongholds, while the other party runs wild in its strongholds.

For nationally fair elections, we need nationwide standards. Without such standards, states can unilaterally and unfairly alter the makeup of Congress. After the 2002 elections, the Democrats held a majority of U.S. House seats in the 46 states outside of Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- and in those four states their 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore cumulatively had won more votes than Republican nominee George Bush. But Republicans controlled redistricting in all four states and slammed through plans that have given them a near iron national grip on the House.

Calling on Congress

Congress must take action. In 2002 Congress has passed the Help America Vote Act to establish national minimum standards for voting, and Democrats like Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Kerry and Republicans like Sens. Mitch McConnell and Kit Bond propose a variety of ideas to strengthen those standards. The same logic of establishing minimum codes of conduct must apply to the way states draw congressional districts.

Congress should ultimately go further and re-establish the right of states to implement systems of full representation in multiseat districts, as Illinois so effectively used to elect its General Assembly for more than a century. Only then can we provide most voters with competitive choices and fair representation.

But it should act now to end the redistricting wars. Representation in the ``people's House'' is too vital a part of our democratic process to be left to a hodgepodge collection of partisan-drenched approaches. Whichever party wins the 2006 elections should pledge to establish fair and universal national standards in the public interest.

JOHN B. ANDERSON, a former independent presidential candidate and congressman, is chairman of FairVote -- the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md. ROB RICHIE is the center's executive director. They wrote this article for Knight Ridder.