Methods to Madness

Alternative Schemes for Single-Member Redistricting

W. Walter Hearne

The following is a comparison and evaluation of the redistricting schemes used by the states of Iowa and New Jersey. Both systems attempt to ensure greater "fairness" by removing direct responsibility for drawing district maps from the legislature. Although both systems are preferable to the usual type of redistricting process, they cannot completely make up for the inadequacies of single-member districts.

What is Redistricting?

Although the terms "redistricting" and "reapportionment" are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a distinction. Redistricting is simply the process in which district lines are drawn. Reapportionment is the redistribution of seats among political units (such as the redistribution of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives among the states after each decennial census). Redistricting always occurs after reapportionment, but it may also occur because of population shifts which do not affect the number of seats.

Why is Redistricting Important?

Redistricting is an issue of tremendous importance, but it is one typically ignored by the average citizen. Most people are unaware of the vast effect which redistricting has upon the political process as a whole. It is a process which is vital to the parties, both of which naturally seek to dominate the legislature and protect their incumbent legislators. If a party is able to control the manner in which representatives are elected, it has a better chance of obtaining these goals.

The more direct control the parties have over the drawing of district lines, the more they are able to manipulate these lines to produce the results they want. In most states, the responsibility for redistricting is given directly to the legislature. This method of redistricting is the most likely to contravene the public interest. In extreme cases, it produces districts in which the politicians have chosen their constituents rather than the other way around. Recognizing this flaw, Iowa and New Jersey use different methods, both of which are examined here following a brief overview of the use of single-member districts in U.S. history.

Redistricting in American History

There is nothing in the Constitution which either mandates or precludes the use of single-member districts. How the founders viewed the issue of single-member versus at-large districts is debatable. By 1840, twenty-two of the thirty-one states exclusively used single-member districts. Gerrymandering, or the manipulation of district lines to achieve a desired political outcome, was a well-established practice by then. Up through the early 1900s, several attempts were made to establish federal law requiring all states to use single-member districts under certain criteria such as contiguity and compactness. Most of these attempts were successfully resisted by the House. The ones which did pass were temporary, virtually enforced, and seen by many officials as non-binding upon the states.

Another movement against at-large elections emerged after World War II. This time the movement was helped by the 1962 Supreme Court decision of Baker v. Carr, which established the equal population principle for single-member districts. While many House members feared that their reelection prospects would be diminished by court-ordered at-large plans, others welcomed the shift of power away from over-represented rural areas. Opposition was eventually overcome in 1967, when Congress passed a statute requiring states with more than one representative to use single-member districts. This law remains on the books today. The number of at-large districts used in state elections was significantly reduced by court rulings under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which targeted racial discrimination in elections.

Contemporary redistricting is not an enviable task. The states often seek to balance a variety of interests, but nevertheless face numerous difficulties. Drawing and adopting a plan is a monumental undertaking in itself. Legal challenges to adopted redistricting plans have become common, and disputes sometimes take years to resolve. States which are covered by the Voting Rights Act must have their plans approved by the U.S. Department of Justice to ensure that minorities do not face discrimination.

Even after all the changes which now affect redistricting, politicians have lost no taste for the gerrymander. The current complexity of redistricting sometimes allows those in control to disguise their purposes, but in many states unabashed partisanship is considered par for the course. Remarkably precise demographics and technological advances make it possible for virtually anyone to create a plan suited to his or her own goals.

The Iowa System

The Iowa system seeks to increase "fairness" in redistricting by giving the responsibility for drawing district lines to a non-partisan state agency rather than the legislature. Iowa's idea of "fairness" is to control partisan influence in the actual drawing of district lines. The legislature still has the final say over whether a plan is adopted.

By the next round of redistricting in 1991, the Republicans had lost control of the legislature, but still had the governor's office. Some observers predicted a nasty fight over redistricting, especially since Iowa had lost one of its six congressional seats. Contrary to these expectations, Iowa's redistricting experience was exceptionally smooth and a plan passed into law well before most other states. The absence of partisan influence was indicated by the large number of incumbents who were forced to run against other incumbents in their new districts. The problem of the lost congressional district was solved by pairing two incumbents, Jim Nussle (R) and David Nagle (D).

In this case, divided government worked in the system's favor. The Democrats, who had sharply criticized Republicans for their threatened abuse of the system in 1981, obviously wanted to avoid looking hypocritical. The Republican governor had little incentive to reject any plan passed by the legislature, since each exercise of the veto potentially brought the Democrats one step closer to drawing the districts themselves.

The New Jersey System

The New Jersey system adopts a different approach for bringing more "fairness" to redistricting. The state constitution calls for the parties to draw up the plans through a bipartisan commission. Any plan adopted by the commission immediately goes into effect, with the exception that they governor may veto the congressional plan. The legislature does not vote on any plan's adoption.

Deadlock on the commission necessitated the appointment of a public member in 1981; a plan was quickly approved thereafter. The process was somewhat more complicated in 1991 due to demographic changes and dissatisfaction with the Democratic-controlled government. Expecting to lose big in the next election, the Democrats initially tried and failed to challenge the census data on the grounds that it inadequately counted racial minorities. Since the arrival of the census data begins the NJAC's allotted time period, the challenge prevented the parties from negotiating before the first deadline arrived. The chief justice appointed the same public member who had served in 1981, and he was able to move the parties to agreement before the final deadline.

Evaluating the Two Systems

Both the Iowa and New Jersey systems contain mechanisms which blunt but do not eliminate partisan influence in redistricting. Both systems, to different degrees, strengthen the hand of neutral redistricting criteria. Perhaps the greatest common benefit of the two systems is that they prevent the majority party from unfairly increasing its existing advantage by manipulating district lines.

Both systems rely to a large degree on the parties to restrain themselves and maintain the legitimacy of the process. Political pressure is the primary, and maybe the only, force which prevents the parties from subverting the public's good faith. Although this type of pressure should not be undervalued, it is by no means a guarantee that politicians will adhere to "fairness" in redistricting.

Institutional integrity is another necessary component of success under the two systems. In Iowa, the continued approval of the LSB by both parties is essential to the object of "fairness." In New Jersey, the ability of the NJAC's ten partisan members and especially its public member to move towards agreement is of distinguished importance.

Since the public member's duty is not to move the parties to any agreement but to a "fair" agreement, the choice and behavior of the public member is crucial to the New Jersey system. Donald Stokes, a Princeton University professor who served as public member in 1981 and 1991, believes that the public member should do more than act as a mere "tie-breaker" between the opposing interests of the parties. It is the public member's responsibility, according to Stokes, to represent the public interest and move the parties to a "fair" plan which can pass constitutional muster. Stokes believes that a "fair" plan is one which allows each party to win a number of seats that is approximately proportional to its share of the popular vote. This interpretation of "fairness" means that the NJAC tries to balance the number of "safe" districts (where one party is almost certain to win) in order to achieve this goal. This is not the first time that the idea of "equal" gerrymandering has been advanced. A House committee reviewing the 1901 redistricting laws concluded that "the division of political power is so general and diverse that notwithstanding the inherent vice of the system of gerrymandering, some kind of equality of distribution results."

There is, however, no clear indication of how the public interest comes into play in the New Jersey system. Given that "fairness" may be taken as the balancing of "safe" districts, it is unclear exactly how the New Jersey system benefits voters. The involvement of public interest ultimately turns on the interpretation of "fairness." From a different perspective, consensus between the parties does not mean "fairness" and the New Jersey plan thus leaves something to be desired.

The New Jersey plan seems to perceive voters as a means to an end, namely the "proportionate" representation of the parties. It might be called "responsible" gerrymandering, but how does it benefit the voter? Is the Republican voter in a purposefully created Democratic district to suppose that he will be given voice by Republicans from other districts? If so, doesn't this belie the single-member district's ostensible purpose to provide geographic representation? Do legislators from New Jersey represent people, or parties? Given the circumstances, the New Jersey plan should be considered an improvement, but it does not seem "fair" from the voter's point of view.

By contrast, the Iowa system takes the initiative out of the parties' hands. Each plan which comes before the Iowa legislature is presumably "fair", and the onus is on the parties to respect the public interest. Under this system "fairness" is taken to be the removal of partisan redistricting criteria, and thus protects voters from the harmful effects of gerrymandering. Iowa should be congratulated on this system, but the question is whether it is easily translatable to larger states which would probably be reluctant to damage their powerful incumbents in Congress. The larger states' reservations could be overcome by nationalizing the scope of change and thus equalizing the threat to incumbents. The House, however, has been resistant to changes which could potentially hurt the reelection prospects of the majority of its members.

Other realities may likewise reduce the Iowa system's adaptability. It may also be difficult to implement in states which must have their redistricting plans pre-cleared by the federal government under the Voting Rights Act. These states must necessarily take racial demographics into account, and there are clear links between the numbers of minority voters and party prospects. Steps taken to protect minority voters could thus conflict with neutral criteria. Larger states, and especially those with high partisanship, may find it difficult to pass a plan which pairs a lot of incumbents together.


What are we to make of these alternatives? First, it should be cautioned that there is no way to completely eradicate partisan influence in the redistricting process without locking out duly elected officials. It does seem that a greater degree of "fairness" can be achieved with single-member districts by taking district maps out of the hands of the amateur cartographers in state legislatures. As we have seen, however, what constitutes "fairness" is subject to judgment. The fundamental differences between the Iowa and New Jersey systems can be traced to this judgment. In Iowa, the purpose is to reduce partisan influence as much as possible while preserving the legislature's ultimate say over the adoption of a plan. In New Jersey, the purpose is to balance partisan interests so that neither party is able to dominate the redistricting process. Both systems have their virtues when considered on their own terms. Yet it is highly unlikely that true proportionality, accurately reflecting both the party affiliations and personal candidate preferences of the electorate, can ever be achieved in strict single-member systems regardless of the redistricting method.

Guide To U.S. Elections. Congressional Quarterly, 1985.

Honey, Rex Dean and Douglas Deane Jones. "An Ethical Escape From the Political Thicket: The Iowa Model For Electoral Districting." A copy of this report was obtained through Iowa's Legislative Services Bureau.

Stokes, Donald E., Legislative Redistricting by the New Jersey Plan. New Brunswick, NJ: The Fund for New Jersey, 1993.


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