Gerrymandering's threat to democracy

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Rich Lowry had a great piece a few days back on National Review Online about how congressional gerrymandering is eroding democracy by making more and more congressional races uncompetitive.

With the help of district lines sometimes so tortured that they look like works of abstract expressionism, incumbents have increased their reelection rate from 92 percent to 98 percent. That is a marginal-seeming but significant change. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato has a feature on his website tracking close congressional races. In 2002, it followed the "Nifty 50," the 50 most competitive races. This year it features the "Dirty 30." "And we had to stretch to get to 30," says Sabato.

Eighty-one incumbents ran unopposed in 2002, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy. In 350 of the 435 congressional races, the winner won by more than 20 percent. The center projects an even less competitive congressional cycle this year. This means representatives increasingly operate without the factor that tends to force them to be representative the fear of defeat.

Lowry goes on to cite other advantages of incumbency, and the difficulty of finding challengers to go after incumbents with such strong built-in advantages. He also recalls the way Democrat majorities in most state legislatures used their power in the '80s and '90s to try to ensure that majority of support for Republican policies didn't translate into a majority in the House of Representatives. That may explain why Republicans were able to reclaim the Senate in 1980, long before they conquered the House -- you can't gerrymander state lines. The Republicans' 1994 victory was not only the result of Clinton's unpopularity, but interpretations of the Voting Rights Act that resulted in drawing snake-like "majority-minority" districts, putting blacks, the most reliably Democrat demographic, in concentrated districts, pulling them out of districts where they had combined with white Democrats to keep southern seats in the Democrat column.

Lowry's conclusion:

States should adopt objective criteria for the drawing of districts, including contiguity and compactness that will limit somewhat the ability of the parties to play games. Bipartisan commissions should be given a significant role in drawing district lines. In Washington state, such a commission has created generally competitive districts so even a speaker of the House (Tom Foley) has lost a race there in recent memory.

The goal should be to make it possible for most people to vote in a congressional election that matters. What a concept.

As we've seen in Oklahoma, the problem extends to the drawing of legislative boundaries. We have absurd gerrymanders like Senate District 18, which runs from Grand Lake to 21st & Sheridan in Tulsa, evidently drawn that way to help Kevin Easley build support for the GRDA job and to ensure that his mama would have a good shot at succeeding him in the State Senate. Another goofy district is House 41, which is 80 miles long and six miles wide, stretching from Enid to Oklahoma City.

It's important for legislatures to take up this issue now, long before it's time to redraw the lines in 2011.

Iowa's approach is worth a close look. They have detailed information on their redistricting website.

Their legislative service bureau uses computers to develop a plan, on which the legislature can only vote up or down. The Iowa redistricting process has certain features to avoid gerrymandering:

1. Iowa uses a bigger geographical areas, defined by natural boundaries, as the indivisible redistricting unit. Most states use the census block as the basic "atom" for redistricting at every level. A state like Iowa is composed of hundreds of thousands of census blocks, which are defined as any area not divided by a street, a political boundary, or a body of water. In Iowa, whole counties are the atomic units for congressional districts. For legislative districts, Iowa uses towns and townships as atoms through most of the state, precincts in the big cities. Sticking to historic boundaries limits the possibilities for mischief. I don't see it on their website anymore, but during redistricting you could download a PDF file showing all the redistricting units and their populations, and you could print it out and draw your own boundaries. This rule also avoids absurdities of the sort we have in Oklahoma, where some state senate and state house district boundaries differ by a single block, requiring a separate voting precinct to be established because the block has a unique combination of senate and house districts.

2. The computer program cannot consider voting or party registration patterns. It also cannot consider where incumbents live.

3. The redistricting program uses a mathematical definition of compactness defined by state statute and considers various scenarios to maximize that value.

4. Iowa uses nested districts -- every state senate district contains exactly two state house districts. This also simplifies things for the voters. A state could easily extend this to congressional districts -- Iowa could require every congressional district to contain a whole number of state senate districts. This restriction alone reduces opportunities for mischief -- it is easier to draw boundaries favorable to each incumbent if the boundaries at each level are independent of each other.

5. By adopting these other goals, which the courts have ruled are legitimate aims for drawing district boundaries, Iowa can get by with higher variances of population between districts. Some states, in the name of compliance with the Voting Rights Act, pass plans with a deviation of at most one person between districts. Those states can plausibly claim that their plan passes the equal representation test, even if the lines are drawn to protect incumbents. (Iowa's redistricting website has a long summary of Federal court rulings about redistricting.)

I mentioned some of these ideas in that op-ed piece on redistricting I wrote for the Tribune back in 1991.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on May 10, 2004 2:20 AM.

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