8 Years to Reform Redistricting in the United States

Lucas Eaves | Foundation for Independent Voter Education | 01/24/2013

Since the official results of the election have been published, a lot has been said about the disparity between the popular vote in which the Democratic House candidates received a majority of the votes and the results that gave the House to the GOP. Attempts to reform redistricting are becoming more popular, as the practice of manipulating redistricting significantly damages the democratic political process.

These results have been explained by gerrymandering, which is the practice of abusing the process of redrawing electoral districts to create an advantage for a particular party or group of people.

Electoral districts are redrawn for two reasons. Firstly, because the Constitution requires states, following the census, to allocate seats in the House of Representatives per state according to a state’s population. When a state wins or looses a seat, the districts must be redrawn.

Secondly, in the 1960, the Supreme Court ruled states must make sure their congressional and state legislative districts need to have roughly the same population. Thus, even if a state does not win or loose a seat, they must still redraw the lines of the districts according to the demographic evolution.

The task of redrawing the electoral boundaries, however, has been subject to partisan manipulation for decades. 37 state legislatures have primary control of their own district lines, and 42 legislatures have primary control over the congressional lines in their state. In the other states it is either a politician or an independent commission who are in charge of the redistricting.

Thus, in many states the party that controls the state legislature when the electoral boundaries have to be redrawn can control the redistricting process. Of course, both the GOP and the Democrats draw districts to their advantage when offered the opportunity.

A good illustration of this practice would be the 7th District in Pennsylvania, which was evidently drawn in order to transform a usually pro-Democratic district into a Republican-leaning district.

Another example is the old 23rd district in California, the “ribbon of shame” as Gov. Schwarzenegger named it, which snagged along the coast of California for nearly 200 miles in order to avoid the GOP-heavy inland communities and favor Democratic Representative Lois Capps.
There are examples of such illogical districts all around the country. The practice of gerrymandering is making the political field less competitive at many levels.

When one party takes the upper hand during redistricting, it can keep an advantage for a whole decade. Moreover, when parties are not competing, they often agree to make safe districts for each other for various reasons.

When a district is safe, parties will have to spend less money during the general election, an important factor for most politicians. Additionally, creating safe districts allows politicians to either favor their own reelection or that of their allies.

These manipulations have altered the political process because the people are no longer deciding the outcome of the elections, the politicians, line-drawers and bureaucrats are.

The districts have been set until 2020. This leaves 8 years for Americans to try to change the rules and regain some control over this process. Recent initiatives in California, which created an independent redistricting commission, and Florida, which added new “fair redistricting criteria,” have attempted to take away the process from partisan hands.

If it is too soon to know the extent of the impact such changes these reforms may have had, it is clear that without any change the gap between the will of the voters and election results will remain.


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