Fixing Elections/Rob Richie and Steven Hill

Digging in Against Gerrymandering

The Supreme Court once again has shown its political stripes. In a mirror vote of the Bush v. Gore decision, the Court by a 5-4 majority has upheld a Pennsylvania redistricting plan drawn by Republicans to maximize their results in the state's congressional races. Just as the court in Bush v. Gore effectively gave the White House to George Bush, the Pennsylvania case effectively awards the US House to House Majority Leader Tom Delay and Republicans for the next decades without a successful reform movement.

As a quick tutorial, every 10 years the US Census releases new population data, and elected officials in nearly every political jurisdiction in the nation carve up the political landscape into new legislative districts to ensure representatives have an equal number of constituents.

Some cities and states have procedures to promote public interest in this redistricting process, but most do little to prevent the creation of a hodgepodge of districts gerrymandered to protect incumbents and build partisan advantage. With increasingly sophisticated computer software, polling results and demographic data, incumbent legislators quite literally choose the voters before the voters have a chance to choose them. As a result of the redistricting process, most voters are locked into 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.

It was bad enough that in 2001 both Republicans and Democrats elevated incumbent protection in redistricting to new levels. In California, for example, incumbent US House Democrats paid $20,000 apiece to a redistricting consultant -- the brother of an incumbent -- to have "designer districts" drawn for them. Republicans went along with this cozy arrangement in exchange for their own safe seats. The result was an unbroken parade of landslide wins, with no challenger to an incumbent winning even 40% of the vote. Nationally, only four challengers defeated House incumbents, the fewest in history, while fewer than one in 10 races were won by competitive margins inside 55% to 45%.

The lockdown of the US House has major repercussions for our political process and representative government. Elected every two years, with representatives closer to the people than senators or the president, the House was designed to reflect the will and different interests of the nation. The reality is far different. Hardly any members can be held electorally accountable, given the paucity of meaningful primary challenges and lopsided general elections. The growth in seats held by women and people of color has come to a standstill after a sharp rise in 1992, after the last redistricting.

Control of the House is nearly as fixed in stone. Since 1954, control of the US House has changed just once, when Newt Gingrich and Republicans took over after the 1994 elections. Democrats gained a few seats in each election between 1996 and 2000, but Republicans cemented their grip in 2002 after dominating redistricting in several large states. Despite Democrats theoretically needing to only pick up 12 seats to regain the House, few observers believe that possible this decade without a dramatic voter surge toward Democrats. A win for George W. Bush in 2004 would make it even harder for Democrats, as it likely would lead to a wave of retirements of Democratic members whose only chance at influence is a sympathetic president.

Redistricting was a key reason for Republican success in 2002. Although Al Gore won a half million more votes than George Bush in 2000, Bush carried 241 of current House districts, compared to only 194 for Gore -- a bias toward Republicans tied to the Democratic vote being more cosmopolitan and more concentrated in cities. Gore won more votes than Bush in the combined votes cast in the states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but Republicans had unfettered control of those states' redistricting and today hold a whopping 51 out of their 77 seats. Given that Democrats hold a majority of House seats in the remaining 46 states, it's fair to say that the key elections for House control were not in 2002, but in earlier state elections that gave Republicans the edge in congressional redistricting.

Led by DeLay and White House mastermind Karl Rove, Republicans last year brought the blood sport of legislative redistricting to new lows by spurring Texas and Colorado to gerrymander congressional districts mid-decade. While Colorado's Supreme Court tossed out the state's plan, the Texas plan -- and with it potentially a Republican pick-up of seven seats -- was waved forward by John Ashcroft's Justice Department and the federal courts. The Court's decision to uphold the Pennsylvania plan indicates that it won't interfere in the Texas power grab.

So what now? Congress has every right -- and indeed responsibility -- to regulate congressional redistricting and require states to establish nonpartisan commissions that draw lines based on clear criteria. Not doing so is analogous to allowing elected officials to count votes in their own elections behind closed doors. States also can take action on their own, and indeed groups like Common Cause are contemplating state ballot measures.

But even with nonpartisan redistricting, the number of competitive districts around the nation would likely rise from today's dismal one in ten seats to perhaps one in six -- and still do little to boost women and racial minorities. What we ultimately must do is take on winner-take-all elections, which are at the root of much of what ails the body politics. Winner-take-all allows one side to represent everyone with a simple majority of the vote. Most enduring democracies have rejected that model in favor of systems that would ensure a majority of voters elect a majority of seats, but also represent political minorities.

One example consistent with American traditions comes from Illinois. For more than a century Illinois voters elected their state legislature with a full representation system in bigger districts that each had three representatives. Lowering the victory threshold for candidates from 50% to 25% didn't overturn the two-party system, but it did broaden representation within the parties, promote more bipartisan policy and force the major parties to be more accountable. Full representation is a win-win for women, racial minorities and supporters of more partisan fairness and more competitive elections. With it in place, voters rather than district lines are the key to defining representation.

The lesson from the Supreme Court is that we must win a fair democracy in the political process. With voter turnout plummeting, most of us living in thoroughly noncompetitive districts and the "People's House" now gerrymandered so that one party has dominant control, we could cancel most legislative elections and few would notice. In the 1990s an angry public lashed out by voting overwhelmingly for term limits. Now it's time for a drive to give voters real choices, new voices and fair representation.

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are the executive director and the senior analyst of the Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, MD 20912 ( Email

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