In the United States, immediately following each decennial census* we reapportion our legislative districts – both for state legislatures and for the U.S. House of Representatives – to correct for population shifts and make each district of a given kind of equal population with every other. That’s a sound practice, on its face. But a peculiar feature of our democracy – and so far as I know it was never actually “invented,” it just seemed to work out that way – is that this redistricting is done by state legislatures. That usually means the map they come up with will be gerrymandered to strengthen the party holding a majority in the state legislature at the time of the redistricting – either by “cracking” a geographic cluster of opposition voters into several contiguous districts in which they will be a minority, or by “packing” them into as few all-opposition districts as possible (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering). It also means that the redistricting plan, drawn up by incumbents of both parties, will be designed to protect their jobs by producing as many noncompetitive, uncontestable “safe seats” as possible. I submit that offering most voters no meaningful choices is bad for democracy.
Right now there’s a movement in Florida, the Committee for Fair Elections (http://www.committeeforfairelections.com/), which is gathering petition signatures to place a referendum on the ballot for the 2006 election. It would establish a nonpartisan 15-member Apportionment and Districting Commission: 3 members nominated by the majority party of each house of the state legislature, 3 members nominated by the minority party of each house, and three by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. From the CFE website:
If you’re registered to vote in Florida, I urge you to download these petitions, print them out, sign them and mail them in as instructed. (We need 75,000 signatures by May 31 just to get the Supreme Court to review the ballot language; we need a total of 750,000 signatures to get the measure on next year’s ballot.) If you live in another state I urge you to start a similar movement for your own state.
Does anybody care to defend the traditional practice of legislative redistricting by the legislatures themselves? Isn’t that a pretty obvious conflict of interest?
Or maybe more frequently, if you live in Texas! :mad:
It’s not just Florida. Take look at Ohio’s congressional districts ! In particular, notice how the boundaries of districts 7, 12 and 15 follow every alleyway as they wind through the suburbs of Columbus. The boundary between 13 and 17 is just as bad.
I have to say that this practice has always struck me as one of the oddest features of the U.S. system. We used to do it that way in Canada, just as in Britain, and we’ve since gone to a system of electoral boundaries commissions, at both the federal and the provincial levels, for much the reasons you describe. I think that’s pretty standard in most liberal democracies. Why has this practice continued in the U.S.?
Because, for a long time, federalism insulated us from its worst consequences. When one party controls the federal government and can district the entire country to its advantage, the evil is so obvious that people demand change. When control is split among 50 states, partisan advantage tends to be a wash–Republicans pick up a few extra seats in some states, Democrats in others.
But over the last 20 years, the evils of this practice have progressed way beyond partisan advantage. It has become the worst Incumbency Protection Racket since Britain abolished “rotten boroughs”. It encourages both parties to pander to the most extreme elements of their base. The mis-shapen districts destroy any sense of community in House elections and make it impossible for non-incumbents to campaign. It’s just all-around bad.
Unfortunately my state doesn’t have citizen initiative, so our only hope is that if enough other states act it will shame our legislature into action (if such a thing is possible).
I don’t disagree with this OP, but I must add that in the recent past some districts were drawn to ensure that the representative elected was a racial minority.
This practice was addressed in Shaw v. Reno and some subsequent cases. The consensus seems to be that race can be a factor in drawing districts, as long as they don’t look too screwy.
Needless to say, any reform will run against this decision and the discriminatory practices in the past that led to minority districts in the first place. I’d like to think this could be resolved neatly, but I’m not that optimistic by nature.
Replacing the single-member-district system with some form of proportional representation would allow racial minorities to elect a few of their own to the legislature (assuming they actually care to vote along racial lines) without any gerrymandered districts. For that matter, it would empower those minority voters who don’t happen to live in enclaves where their own race predominates (and such voters, at present, get nothing out of racial gerrymandering). But that would be for another thread.
This practice goes back to the earliest days of the Republic (witness the name, taken from a political cartoon showing Elbridge Gerry’s partitioning of voting districts in, IIRC, Connecticut), and it’s always been bad. Nobody’s mentioned it yet (to my surprise), but this was the point of all the fighting recently in the Texas legislature, where the Democrats fled out of state to prevent a redistricting vote that would’ve Gerrymandered them out of power. As Molly Ivins correctly notes, it’s one of the most naked power grabs you’ll see legislators involving themselves in.
One oproblem has been that the folks with the upper hand might outsmart themselves, cutting up the districts to get themselves a majority now that, unfortunately, doesn’t work their way down the line because of changing demographics. Gicve yourself more districts each with a bare majority might not be as smart as getting fewer districts with more secure majorities.
Regardless, it’s ludicrous. But can you honestly say that if you gave control of disdtricting over to another body that that body would not itself then become a battleground between the two parties? How would you insulate the Drawers of Boundaries from party politics?
You can’t, entirely. But the solution we’re proposing in Florida is a 15-member commission, 6 members nominated by the majority party in the legislature, 6 by the minority party, and 3 by the chief justice of the Supreme Court; so neither party will have the upper hand in it at any time, and some members will actually be nonpartisan (or, at least, won’t owe their positions to pary affiliation).
I think this is a good idea. But I wouldn’t urge all 50 states to immediately adopt it. I’d love to see several states adopt slight variances of this basic plan, and see how they work out. Other states may then be guided by these experiments.
Well, I oversimplified, it’s not at the CJ’s sole discretion. The initiative reads:
We have five appellate districts in Florida. So, the CJ will choose three from a list of 15 names submitted to him by the chief judges of the appellate districts – and all of them must be registered voters, and none of them can be registered Democrats, nor Republicans. So, the commission will include 6 Pubs, 6 Dems, and 3 independents. Pretty nonpartisan, no?
I agree, and wouldn’t defend the practice. But the devil is in the details, and there are so many vested intrests involved, that it’s going ot be a real struggle to change this. Still, I definitely agree that this is needed to shake up the status quo.
I have long advocated electing Representatives (as in House of) from each state at large. I also am a fan of returning to the original method of appointing Senators, by the way.
In any case, the minority/majority district is one of the greatest political tricks of the (last) century. Presume that all minority people vote Democratic. OK, if minority voters were spread equally throughout the state then each district would have a block of reliable Democratic voters.
But if we put the minority people in one ghetto (I mean district) then that one district would return a huge Democratic majority. All the other districts would then be in play, with a greater proportion of Republicans.
So the Bush Administration (the real one, not this one) forced the adoption of minority majority districting in order to destroy the Democratic grip on power in the House.
The really neat thing about this trick is the Democrats cannot be against minority-majority districting as to do so would mean their guys (who are sometimes minority themselves) would have more (but tougher) districts to run in. So instead they have a lock on the ghetto districts but have less of a chance elsewhere.