The Gerrymander That Ate America

Here’s the only way to make House races competitive again.

This piece is adapted from Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship Is Poisoning the House of Representatives, published this month by Rowman & Littlefield.

Tom DeLay has fallen, but his handiwork remains—32 Texas congressional districts drawn to guarantee Republican dominance of the state’s House delegation. In 2003, at the urging of then-House Majority Leader DeLay, the Texas state legislature redrew the state’s political map, an unprecedented gambit that cost five incumbent Democrats their seats in 2004 (four lost in the general election and one retired, while a sixth switched parties). The map also guaranteed safe seats for almost everyone: The only Texas Republican who would have faced a tight House race in 2006 was DeLay himself. DeLay resigned, of course, to deal with an indictment stemming from the redistricting effort.

Democratic lawyers—and some less partisan types—petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the Texas redistricting, hoping to persuade the justices that this particularly brazen district-rigging is unconstitutional. The court heard arguments in the case on March 1. Many of the plaintiffs would like the court to set some overarching national standards for divvying up the nation’s 435 House seats each decade. At the moment each state fends for itself, with varying degrees of success: Some state legislatures handle the job while others rely on independent commissions.

It’s hard to find a defender of the current process: It’s engineered to favor not only incumbents, but also typically the most ideological ones who derive their power from pandering to party extremists. House incumbents seeking re-election now have a 98 percent chance of winning, up from the lower 90s in the 1990s. It’s a system in which party operatives manipulate sophisticated computer software to maximum effect, shuffling voters across district boundaries to guarantee their candidates have the best chance of winning election every two years.

 “As a mapmaker, I can have more of an impact on an election than a campaign, than a candidate,” says Republican consultant David Winston, who drew House seats for the GOP after the 1990 U.S. Census. “When I, as a mapmaker, have more of an impact on an election than the voters, the system in out of whack.”

Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who once embraced such tactics as a key to helping his party take control of Congress, now backs any redistricting reform plan that involves “citizens who do not have an interest in maximizing [political] leverage.” Under the current system, Gingrich reasons, Democrats “get to rip off the public in the states where they control and protect their incumbents, and we get to rip off the public in the states we control and protect our incumbents, so the public gets ripped off in both circumstances. … In the long run, there’s a downward spiral of isolation.”

Both partisans and nonpartisans agree congressional elections are a mess. So, what should be done about it? Most congressional experts agree on what a fair system would look like: It would limit redistricting to once a decade in order to reflect the latest population figures. It would place a priority on fostering competitiveness, ensuring minority representation, creating geographically compact districts, and achieving a congressional delegation that reflects the state’s overall political balance.

Is this even possible? There have been some sincere, but unsuccessful, efforts to try. Just last fall voters in California and Ohio considered proposals to create independent redistricting panels, but they rejected both of them by wide margins. In each case members of one party saw the proposal as benefiting the rival party: California Democrats believed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to put three retired judges in charge of redistricting would help the GOP, while Ohio Republicans saw a plan to create an independent citizen’s commission as favoring Democrats.

New Jersey has made the boldest effort. It has a redistricting plan that seems perfect on paper but turns out to suffer from an unanticipated fatal flaw. The Garden State has a bipartisan redistricting commission equally divided between the two parties. It is chaired by an impartial tiebreaker—historically, a professor from Rutgers or Princeton University. Each party drafts its own map. Whichever map wins a majority is approved. Both parties thus have an incentive to court the tiebreaking chairman, encouraging them to draw a map that reflects the state’s true political leanings.

But the New Jersey process has a loophole: If the two parties collude they can draw a map that protects all the incumbents and outvote the tiebreaker. That’s what happened after the 2000 census. The GOP wanted to protect its six incumbents, while Democrats wanted to protect their seven seats. The two parties came up with their incumbent-protection plan and outvoted the tiebreaker, Rutgers University political science professor Allen Rosenthal. It was a bipartisan solution to be sure, but one that protected politicians’ interests rather than voters’.

But there is a perfect system out there. Sam Hirsch, a D.C. election lawyer who represents lots of Democrats, has drafted a state constitutional amendment, loosely modeled on the New Jersey system, that would keep politicians involved in redistricting while that ensuring the final map would reflect prevailing political opinion. Under Hirsch’s plan, the tie-breaking chairman would be almost a redistricting dictator. He would have more votes than all the other members combined, which would block the kind of bipartisan gerrymander that happened in New Jersey. At the same time it would keep politicians involved in the process, allowing them to provide expertise about campaigning and the electoral nature of individual districts.

This process would produce at least two immediate results: It would create more seats with competitive general-election contests, and it would give aspiring politicians an incentive to move a little closer to the political center. That might foster a more meaningful dialogue on Capitol Hill, by reducing the echo-chamber effect that now exists between House members and their like-minded constituents in their Republican- or Democratic-leaning seats.

It’s unlikely that members of Congress will push for redistricting reform, because they’re the people who benefit the most from the status quo. Rep. John Tanner, a centrist Democrat from Tennessee, introduced legislation nearly a year ago that would establish independent redistricting commissions with independent tiebreakers. It has 46 co-sponsors at the moment, only two of whom are Republican. The companion bill in the Senate has only one sponsor, its author, Tim Johnson, D-S.D.

Unfortunately for Tanner and Hirsch, though many Americans have become increasingly frustrated with Congress, as shown by recent polls, they have yet to recognize how election-proof districts have made lawmakers less accountable to voters and more inclined to fight petty partisan battles. The defeat of the California and Ohio redistricting measures prove how easy it is for entrenched political interests to block change. The Supreme Court is also unlikely to come to the aid of the reformers. Even if it does throw out DeLay’s Texas House map, it is likely to issue the narrowest possible ruling, one that leaves plenty of room for political and partisan redistricting. Americans will be left with the same dismal system, which they will keep until they realize that the problem in Congress isn’t just the politicians, but also the process that put them in office.