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'.
Juliet Eilperin, national environmental reporter for the Washington Post, is the author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks.