Politics

Monster Maps

Has devious district-making killed electoral competition?
by | October 2005
 

There's a growing consensus among good-government reformers that partisan mapmaking is the cause of many, if not most, contemporary political problems. Sophisticated technology and block-by-block voting data have allowed politicians to create sets of districts that are each locked up for one party or the other, so that competition takes place only in primaries, not general elections. Candidates need to appeal only to party loyalists and not the broader public. And that, in turn, has led to polarization among lawmakers.

So the argument goes. It is far from a new argument--the term "gerrymander" itself dates back to 1812--but the chorus of complaint has grown unusually loud at the mid-point of the current decade, five years before the next census will require new maps to reflect population changes. Redistricting reform has suddenly supplanted campaign finance as the cause nearest and dearest to activists, academics and editorial writers who find the political status quo unacceptable. It has become the subject of conferences, scholarly research and, most important, ballot initiative campaigns in California, Ohio and Florida.

Those states are worthy targets for reformers, since political competition has been all but eliminated from each of them at any level where district lines matter. In the much-cited example of California, not a single one of the 153 campaigns for Congress or the legislature last year led to a switch in party control.

After a summer of legal wrangling, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's initiative to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians is back on next month's California ballot. Ohio voters will vote on a similar redistricting initiative at the same time; Floridians, and perhaps residents of other states as well, will get their turn in 2006. Each of the current state proposals creates different rules, but the goal of all of them (see box on page 48) is the same: anoint new mapmakers in hopes of sheltering them from partisan bias to the greatest extent possible.

There are big obstacles against any of these measures passing. Whichever party benefits most from the current system in a particular place--Democrats in California, Republicans in Florida and Ohio--will recognize the threat posed to its hegemony and fight accordingly. The groups that are agitating for change face a tough selling job anyway. Any discussion about how to revamp the cartographic process to create more competitive districts quickly grows technical and arcane to the vast majority of citizens--"quintessential, cliche inside baseball," says Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most voters don't follow the ins and outs even when it's actively happening, and certainly don't share the reformers' zeal several years and two or three elections after the lines for a given decade have been settled.

Recognizing this, the activists leading the initiative campaigns have sought to simplify their message into questions of right and wrong, appealing to a deep-seated sense that something is sick in the political system and that redistricting reform, however arcane it may be, offers a cure. "You can't get into all the details when you talk to people--their eyes glaze over," says state Representative Tim Ryan, a sponsor of the Florida initiative. Nevertheless, he thinks voters are primed to believe that they are being cheated if incumbents can't be removed from office because, with the sophistication of high-tech line-drawing, the politicians are choosing the voters rather than the other way around. "The most important right we have as Americans is the right to vote," Ryan says, "but in Florida that right has been diluted by partisan gerrymandering."

There's some truth to what Ryan says, and changing the process so that persons other than incumbent politicians or their appointees draw the lines would unquestionably have a beneficial effect. Under each of these reforms, there would be less chance to craft districts for partisan advantage, and so there should be a larger number of competitive districts.

But there might not be many more. For all the logic of the redistricting reform arguments, partisan gerrymanders simply exacerbate polarizing tendencies that would be present no matter who made the maps. The fact is that in much of the country, voters are naturally congregating themselves into single-party precincts. Liberal havens such as the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City, or vast Republican stretches in Texas and the Rocky Mountain states, are no longer exceptional. "When you get right down to it, a large element of the non-competitiveness we're seeing in America is social sorting," says Bruce Cain, a redistricting expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "People are moving into areas with people like themselves, in terms of race or income. You'd have to explicitly undo that homogeneity to create more competitiveness."

THE IOWA MODEL

This reality undercuts the central tenet of reformers: that there'd be more competition if only more states did something like what Iowa has been doing for the past couple of decades. In Iowa, legislative staff members draw the districts, and are instructed to keep county lines and traditional geographic jurisdictions intact wherever possible and not draw lines to serve one party's interests. To discourage them from creating cozy districts for current officeholders, they aren't even supposed to know incumbents' home addresses.

And it's true that Iowa does have many more competitive districts, both legislative and congressional, than the average state. But its results may not be easily replicated elsewhere. Its demographics are much more homogenous than those of most states; however you slice up Iowa, says one redistricting wag, you still get Iowa.

The other method that reformers find promising is one that attempts to be bipartisan rather than nonpartisan. It involves establishment of a commission with equal representation from the two parties, and an extra member, often an academic, who is outside the regular party hierarchy and expected to function as the tiebreaker. This is the way New Jersey does it.

The tiebreakers in New Jersey are figures of considerable power. Over the years, they have sent partisan mapmakers back to the drawing board time and again to create as many competitive legislative districts as possible. But even if they are entirely free of partisan connections, tiebreakers essentially operate on personal preference. Some observers find that to be a fatal flaw, including some who have actually played the role themselves. "You can't trust to the philosophy of the tiebreaker," says Alan Rosenthal of Rutgers University, who served as a tiebreaker in congressional redistricting. "You have to enact standards."

Arizona is one state that has tried to codify fair districting with a set of explicit standards, most notably the promotion of electoral competition, but this has not been easy, either. Michael McDonald, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, recounts the time he was instructed by an Arizona court to draw the maximum feasible number of competitive districts. McDonald says it might have been possible to make about two-thirds of the legislative districts in Arizona competitive if that had been the only goal. But the instructions also included a laundry list of other criteria, among them racial equality as dictated by the federal Voting Rights Act. To meet that mandate, it was necessary to pack Democratic voters into a small number of constituencies, increasing minority representation but also exaggerating the state's overall Republican tilt. The priorities of competition and racial balance were flatly contradictory.

And it's all too easy to collide with a third priority: the desire to keep districts compact and made up of whole cities, counties or other "communities of interest"--a goal that the federal courts have explicitly endorsed. The more that Americans arrange themselves in demographic and partisan residential clusters, the harder it will be, under any set of procedural rules, to draw competitive maps without drawing lines that snake through counties, cities and neighborhoods in search of the elusive competitive balance.

It would have the same effect as busing, in other words, without actually shuttling people around. Very few citizens would find that appealing. It would be a mistake, warns Ohio state Representative Kevin DeWine, a critic of that state's reform initiative, "to place competitive races, competitive seats above any other constitutional protection that has been built into the redistricting process."

PUSHING FOR REFORM

The current desire to alter redistricting is rooted partly in the events that took place in Texas last year. Although the state's congressional lines had long since been redrawn in accordance with the population results of the 2000 census, the state's new Republican legislative majority was determined to draw them again to further enhance GOP strength and undo a pro-Democratic tilt. Groups of Democratic legislators twice fled the state en masse in hopes of preventing a legislative quorum and blocking passage of the new districting plan. Ultimately it passed anyway, and Republicans picked up five new seats in Texas, enhancing their control of the U.S. House. Yet the whole episode seemed so irregular and so dramatic that it gave reformers a case study illustrating both the high stakes and the partisan fervor involved in redistricting.

But a more important source of discontent about redistricting methods may be the fact that they have simply gotten so good. Armed with computer software that grows more sophisticated with each passing year--let alone each decade--mapmakers can operate with ever- increasing assurance that their "pack and crack" methods will turn out exactly as the prevailing political party desires. Where the opposing party has significant strength, its supporters can be packed into the smallest possible number of districts, limiting the number of winnable seats. Where there is a closer mix, they can spread or "crack" the other party's supporters into multiple districts, diluting their numbers so that they are a minority wherever they land. This is all made possible by huge databases that create a firm sense of how the tiniest sub-communities are likely to vote.

The effect of all this on competitiveness is pretty clear. In Florida last year, only a handful of state legislators faced any major party opposition, and not a single incumbent was defeated. Only six of the challengers finished within 10 points of the winner. In Ohio, the average victory margins in 2004 were 35 points in elections for the state Senate, 38 points for the state House, and 44 points for the U.S. House. "If they're not competitive," says Paul Tipps, a veteran Ohio Democrat and one of the leaders of the state's redistricting initiative, "the public doesn't have a choice and no opportunity to influence public policy."

Those arguments are influencing editorial boards, including many in Ohio that are strong supporters of redistricting reform in general and of next month's initiative in particular. "Anybody who relishes democracy and who sees elections as the heart of the democratic process ought to see the appeal of this reform," the Dayton Daily News editorialized in July.

This year's Ohio initiative has been given another significant, if accidental, boost by a series of problems that have plagued the regnant state Republican Party. Administration officials have lost more than $300 million worth of state money in a pair of investment scandals, and GOP Governor Bob Taft pleaded no contest to criminal misdemeanors for failing to disclose favors given him by lobbyists. Reformers have not been shy about turning all the political bad news into an argument for changing the prevailing rules of the game.

SERIOUS OBSTACLES

Public ire is the one strong weapon that reformers have when it comes to redistricting. Few incumbents have any interest in changing the system that brought them to power. "This is not something that official Washington is going to do on its own," says Randy Ford, a spokesman for Tennessee Congressman John Tanner, who has sponsored a bill to require all states to move to an independent redistricting commission. That's why most of the current activity is happening in states where changes can be implemented by direct voter action. Groups such as Common Cause have devoted hundreds of thousands of dollars to helping state activists gather signatures, conduct polling and lay the groundwork for initiative campaigns.

But once these measures make it to state ballots, they attract even more serious money in support or opposition: trial lawyers and unions on the Democratic side and business interests in support of the GOP. Battles over redistricting, then, threaten to become as partisan as the redistricting results themselves. And this generally is not good news for the proponents of change. In California, for example, three previous ballot initiatives to change redistricting rules were all defeated after the state's majority Democrats spent heavily against them.

Democratic Representative Howard Berman (whose brother drew California's current congressional map) and other members of Congress have geared up their fundraising operations to fight this year's model, which the California Supreme Court restored to the ballot after lower courts had removed it based on a technicality. Money has swamped previous reform initiatives that started out with an advantage in the state, and Schwarzenegger's initiative was trailing in the polls even before the campaign against it had gotten underway in earnest. "I think we'll beat it," said Dan Lowenstein, a UCLA law professor, after the initiative was put back on the November ballot.

Win or lose, the initiatives in Ohio and California represent just an initial phase in the current campaign by redistricting reformers to change a clearly anti-competitive system. They will continue to adjust their proposals to survive legal challenges, appeal to voters and come up with ways to draw maps that aren't unduly influenced by partisan concerns.

But it will always be difficult to take the politics out of a quintessentially political act. Even if a system could be created under which district maps were drawn by nonpartisan and exquisitely fair-minded people, the desire for districts that are both compact and competitive would lead to inevitable contradictions. Ridding the system of the worst partisan gerrymanders would be an improvement but would be unlikely to bring about major changes in the political landscape. "Throughout American history, there have always been reformers that have said if we do this, we'd have the city on the hill and everything would be wonderful," says Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Sacramento State. "And cumulatively, they've been helpful. But the political system is not something that's perfectible, so we're always going to be looking for ways to address the system and continue to tweak it."

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