De-Clawing the Gerrymander

By Walter Hearne
January 21, 1998

The approach of the year 2000 has brought a number of musings on the meaning of the millennium. They range from the humorous to the apocalyptic, but these thoughts are mostly concerned with the general prospects of the human race. To most politicians, however, the year 2000, like every other year ending in zero, means something of more immediate importance.

In that year, yet another national census will be taken. Based on the resulting data, the states will once again literally map out their political future. Fear not the apocalypse, gentle citizen; fear redistricting.

In the 2000 round of redistricting, we can expect the usual -- and then some. The parties will scramble to maximize their prospects. Incumbents will be protected. The time-honored tradition of gerrymandering will be respected. Many voters will be herded into districts designed to increase (or decrease) the voting strength of a certain group. New computers, better polling techniques, increasing voter consistency and more precise census information will make this gerrymandering easier than ever before.

These gerrymanders will have a damaging effect on the democratic process. The outcome of many future races will be predetermined by the shape of district boundaries. Thousands of meaningless ballots will be cast because of a system in which representatives choose their constituencies before their constituencies choose them.

Is there any way to save ourselves from the antidemocratic effects of redistricting? Fortunately, the answer is yes. To their credit, some states already take steps to blunt partisan influence.

One method is to use a separate, bipartisan commission to draw up the districts. Unlike the legislature, neither party has control, and thus neither party can monopolize power through the gerrymander. Among the states that use a bipartisan commission, some use it as the primary redistricting body; others use it only as insurance against deadlock in the legislature.

The problem with the bipartisan commission is that while it can balance the interests of the parties, its success does not mean that it will be fair to voters. A bipartisan commission can result in what essentially is a bipartisan gerrymander, where each party holds its "deserved" number of "safe" districts in which it is assured victory.

Iowa takes a different approach. Instead of using a bipartisan commission, the state's redistricting plans are done by the non-partisan Legislative Services Bureau. In drawing the plans, the Bureau operates under non-partisan criteria only (population equality, contiguity, etc.). Although the legislature and the governor have the ultimate say over the adoption of a plan, the ability of politicians to manipulate district lines is severely limited. If one party ends up on the short end of the stick, it's the product of chance rather than conscious design.

The nonpartisanship of the Iowa system is clearly reflected in the number of powerful incumbents who were forced to run against each other following the last redistricting. The House speaker was forced to run against the minority leader, and the majority and minority leaders of the Senate found themselves squaring off against each other.

Despite the obvious advantages of using bipartisan or non-partisan bodies for redistricting, the sobering reality is that some voters are going to be left out in the cold by "winner takes all" single-member district systems.

These systems are patently unfair to the voters because they allow representation for slim majorities (and in some cases, mere pluralities) while denying the same to substantial minorities. A common result is that legislative bodies or delegations poorly reflect the actual composition of the electorate. For example, all of Massachusetts's ten U.S. House seats are held by Democrats, and all of Oklahoma's six House seats are held by Republicans. These monopolies do not come close to reflecting the partisan makeup of their respective states.

The remedies previously discussed may help to alleviate some of the symptoms, but they can't cure the disease. The best way to cure the ills of the "winner take all" electoral system is to adopt forms of proportional representation.

Systems such as cumulative voting, choice voting, and limited voting protect the rights of both majorities and minorities. Next month, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) plans to introduce a sorely needed bill allowing states to adopt multi- member congressional districts which use proportional representation systems. While the idea of using multi-member districts is anathema to some, it is an alternative which we ignore only to our own disservice.


Walter Hearne was research coordinator of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

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