Des Moines Register

April Fool's Redistricting
April 5, 2000
By Matthew Cossolotto

"Voting is a civic duty and every vote counts equally in our democracy."

April Fools!

Unfortunately, that's exactly what we'll be saying on April 1, 2001. That's when state legislatures and interest groups are scheduled to receive the new population data collected as part of the Y2K census. A great deal of attention has understandably been paid to the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the census data itself. Officials in states like New York, California, Florida and Texas are eyeing this new census carefully, worried that an undercounting of certain minority and low-income groups could cost their states and communities big time when it comes to allocating congressional representation and spending for a variety of federal assistance programs.

The census directly affects the "reapportionment" of congressional representation to the various states. Reapportionment deals with how the 435 existing seats in the House of Representatives are divided among the states. States that have experienced significant population growth since the last census will normally gain additional seats in the House. States that lose population -- or merely hold steady -- stand to lose a seat or two in the House.

So census undercounting is clearly a huge issue for many states. But an equally pressing issue has received virtually no attention at all thus far in the census process. I'm referring to congressional redistricting.

Every ten years, we play this zero-sum-game with representatives because the total number of representatives -- 435 -- has remained the same since 1912. Next year, the country will face the difficult task of divvying up (reapportioning) 435 members among the various states. Then each state legislature -- once it finds out on April 1, 2001, how many representatives its state has been allocated -- will begin the agonizing process of carving the state into the appropriate number of state and federal legislative districts. This is called the "redistricting" process.

Incredibly enough, redistricting American style allows partisan politicians in most state capitals to redraw the boundary lines of that states legislative districts. In other words, redistricting allows politicians to choose the voters they want, instead of the other way around. Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse! The political party that controls the state legislature and/or the governorship is inevitably tempted to redraw district lines in a way that serves its own partisan interests. Redistricting is both an incumbent protection racket and a ten-year insurance policy for parties in power.

Redistricting as we practice it turns the very notion of representative government on its head. It's anathema to the very underpinnings of our representative democracy, and yet it goes on behind closed doors, far from the cleansing spotlight of public and media scrutiny.

Where district lines are drawn is no small matter. Redistricting has a direct effect in determining the outcome of state and congressional elections. Redistricting will have a direct bearing on which party controls the House of Representatives in the coming decade.

If you're a Democrat who is drawn into an overwhelmingly Republican congressional district, you have virtually no chance of ever electing a representative of your choice. The reverse is also true. And heaven forbid if you favor a third party candidate. You're plain out of luck. Because of partisan redistricting, the election results were rigged long before the polls even opened. In a very real sense, our cherished ballot boxes have already been stuffed by partisan office holders in charge of the redistricting process.

That's why next April 1st could turn out to be a cruel April Fool's hoax on our democracy. It's probably too late this time around for the public to demand major changes to the redistricting process. The best we can hope for is that watchdog groups and the media will expose the sordid process to public scrutiny. But by 2010, we should create a grassroots movement for real reforms -- such as non-partisan commissions using non- political criteria for redrawing district lines, or better yet, proportional voting systems that allow voters to actually choose their own representatives. What a concept!

Our democracy is too important to let entrenched politicians play April Fool's tricks on the American electorate. It's time to change the redistricting process so it truly works for all Americans, not just the powers that be.

Matthew Cossolotto, a former congressional aide, is the author of the Almanac of European Politics. He was founding president of the Center for Voting and Democracy, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to educating the public about the benefits of alternative voting systems: PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039,