Redistricting reform: the wonkishness of the term alone causes some folks to fall asleep – as it apparently did to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who reportedly face-planted on her desk for 15 minutes during a Supreme Court hearing last week on the constitutionality of Tom DeLay’s 2003 district-packing plan.
But the fact that the fight over redistricting reform has again made it to the Supreme Court indicates the vital importance of this policy debate. And now, with the confluence of a Supreme Court case, influence peddling scandals, a timely new Senate sponsor of a bipartisan congressional redistricting bill, and grassroots movements underway in 15 states, there is new momentum behind this effort.
No single action would do more to heal the artificial polarization of Americans politics.
Redistricting is the primary tool that professional partisans use to rig the system to their benefit. By dividing state’s electoral boundaries into safe seats, they enable the incumbency-protection racket that has resulted in a 98% re-election rate.
Because this segregation-by-political-affiliation effectively ends competitive general elections, the only real contests occur in partisan primaries. This forces the power in our politics to the margins – after all, in a 7% turnout primary, 3.6% of the electorate makes a majority – helping to explain the disproportionate influence of ideological activists and accounts for the institutional drift of Congress away from its historic balance of power in the center.
Because politics follows the lines of physics – every action creates an equal and opposite reaction – it should come as no surprise that redistricting has been increasingly used as a weapon by both parties. Some liberals conveniently forget that it was Democrats who began playing the gerrymandering game in the 1980s when faced with the realignment of the South. Desperate to hold on to power, they began drawing contorted majority-minority districts in the name of civil rights. This created the Democratic safe seats they desired, but it also reduced the demographic and political balance in the remaining districts, angering Republicans while increasing their own regional irrelevance.
In recent years, Republicans have been getting revenge with redistricting efforts that stack the deck in their favor. The most notorious of these landed them in the Supreme Court last week.
Of the seven incumbents who lost their congressional seats in 2004, four were Democrats from Texas. This was by design. In 2003, House Majority Leader Tom Delay traveled down to the Texas State Capital to oversee a redistricting project. In the normal course of events, redistricting occurs every ten years, after the census. But the man proudly nicknamed “The Hammer” wanted to leave nothing to chance leading up to a pivotal presidential election year.
The aims and attitudes of the commission were made clear in an e-mail by Texas Republican congressional aide Joby Fortson (reported by The New Yorker) in which he explained the fate of a district represented by the senior Democrat in the state, Martin Frost, writing “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…. His district disappeared.” This cannot be what the founding fathers had in mind.
Now the case has wound its way up to the Supreme Court, where the Reagan-appointed centrist swing vote of Anthony Kennedy may prove to be the deciding factor. But in the intervening months before a decision is handed down, the Jack Abramoff scandal has some Washington insiders reconsidering their wily ways.
Just in time, the “Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act” introduced by Representative John Tanner, a Democrat of Tennessee, gained an influential new ally last week, when Senator Tim Johnson, a Democrat of South Dakota, agreed to introduce identical legislation in the Senate.
The bill, which has 45 co-sponsors in the House – including Republican Congressmen Phil Gingrey of Georgia and Zach Wamp of Tennessee – would ban mid-decade redistricting and have each state’s electoral lines decided by an bipartisan, independent commission. “We need to clean up the process,” Senator Johnson explained in a press release. “Redistricting should not be done to benefit either political party.”
At a time when politicians jump at the chance to label themselves reformers, it may come as a surprise to find that the Democrat from South Dakota is the lonely Senate endorsee to date. The dirty little secret, of course, is that elected politicians like the redistricting system rigged as it is – after all, it worked for them. Why should they level the playing field to help a potential challenger?
That’s why voters have taken it upon themselves to fuel grassroots redistricting reform efforts in 15 different states, including California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Look at that list and you’ll see it is evenly spread across the country, representing all regions, political leanings and enough electoral votes to get elected president. Redistricting reform is a growing populist movement, encouraged by groups like Common Cause, FairVote.org, and the Centrist Coalition, to name just a few. Even in states like California and Ohio, where redistricting reform ballot initiatives were defeated in 2005 by threatened incumbent parties – Democrat and Republican, respectively – new bipartisan legislative efforts are underway.
The resilience of redistricting reform in the face of strenuous professional partisan opposition is a testament to its urgency and merit. Congressional scandals and increased public disgust with the artificial polarization of politics may finally force Congress and state legislatures alike to end this corrupt bargain. But it will only happen if our elected representatives are shamed into taking action. Once redistricting is reformed, the political process will be more open to competition, while there will be tangible electoral rewards for working constructively across the aisle. It is the reform that would open the door to all others.