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"Redistricting in 2001 is going to be the greatest bonanza for lawyers since the founding of the New Deal."

Demography is Destiny

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The partisan struggle over the use of statistically adjusted data from the U.S. Census to avoid "undercounts" was just a warm-up for the real game: the redistricting of thousands of legislative districts throughout the country.

Once the census data is provided to states, legislative districts must be redrawn to ensure they are equal in population. With few public-interest checks on their near-Godlike power in drawing state legislative and congressional districts, incumbents use increasingly sophisticated computer software and demographic data to literally choose the voters before the voters have a chance to choose them.

Moreover, political parties with full control of the process in a state — such as Democrats in California and Republicans in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia — can seek to cement their power. By using techniques like "packing," whereby lines are drawn to concentrate many supporters of political opponents into a few districts, and "cracking," where opponents' supporters are split among several districts, they can dramatically heighten their chances for the next decade.

Jim Nicholson, former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), stated last year: "The winners [of the state legislatures] are going to determine the political landscape in at least the first decade of the next millennium, because they are the people who are going to preside over the process of reapportionment and redistricting of their respective states as a result of the 2000 census."

With so much at stake, Democrats and Republicans are preparing to claw like cats and dogs — especially in the courts. "There's going to be a race to the courthouse," says Stanford law professor Pam Karlan. "The redistricting process following 2000 is going to be more of a litigation-driven process than it was in the past." Caltech professor J. Morgan Kousser says, "Redistricting in 2001 is going to be the greatest bonanza for lawyers since the founding of the New Deal."

More hearings, more lawsuits, more investigations. Sound familiar? The fragile "bipartisanship" is sure to evaporate under the torrid heat of redistricting.

Who gets ripped off by this process? The voters, of course. As a result of the redistricting process, most voters become locked down into noncompetitive one-party districts where their only real choice at election time is to ratify the incumbent or heir apparent of the party controlling that district.

In 2000, for example, 78 percent of U.S. House seats — nearly four out of five — were won by landslide margins greater than 20 percentage points. Only 38 seats — less than 9 percent — were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percentage points, the lowest figure since 1988. Most big wins were in districts where one party has a lopsided partisan advantage.

Like a Soviet-type Politburo, nearly 99 percent of House incumbents won re-election. In a whopping 41 percent of state legislative races only one major party candidate ran. Is this any way to run a democracy?

Redistricting — or shall we say "the incumbent protection process" — is the leading cause of uninspiring choiceless elections. If you are a Democrat in a solidly Republican district, or a Republican in a solidly Democratic district, or a supporter of a minor party everywhere, you don't have a chance of electing your candidate. Demography is destiny, it turns out.

What can be done? Although partisan technocrats have drawn their maps, there are several options to consider:

At the least, redistricting should be a public process, with full media coverage and citizen input.

Redistricting should be taken out of the hands of the incumbents and given to independent commissions guided by nonpolitical criteria. Arizonans recently voted to implement such a citizen review procedure.

Single-seat districts with multiseat legislative districts should be replaced and a proportional voting system adopted, like that used by most established democracies for national legislative elections. Candidates in Massachusetts might run in one of two five-seat districts, where it would take about a fifth of the vote to win a seat, rather than in 10 separate districts, which now are all held by white male Democrats. This would give all voters better choices, better representation and foster more competition. Nearly every multiseat district would have full representation, instead of the safe, one-party districts we have now.

With re-gerrymandering underway, a movement for reform has a natural rallying cry that fits with our nation' s democratic impulse: "This time, let the voters decide."

Editor's Note: At www.fairvote.org, the Center for Voting and Democracy has developed a number of Web-based resources about redistricting, including a "Redistricting Wheel" (where viewers can try their own hand at redistricting, and see how different legislative lines produce different results), a comprehensive online library, commentaries and op-ed pieces, and other resources.



Bob Richie and Steven Hill are executive director and western regional director, respectively, of The Center for Voting and Democracy.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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