REDISTRICTING Radical Bleeding Heart image

How Politicians Get to Choose Their Voters

MAPS. Redistricting is about drawing maps: maps that determine who belongs together when it comes to electing government officials and legislative representatives. The most notorious abuse of this process is called “gerrymandering,” which involves creating districts drawn specifically for a particular political result. When people talk about reforming the redistricting process, they typically think about eliminating gerrymandering.

The problem with this attitude is that there is no such thing as a politically neutral political district. Eliminating gerrymandering is important (if difficult) but by itself will not produce fair and impartial districts. And even perfect districts—if that were possible—would not insure a responsive, responsible and truly democratic government.

GERRYMANDERING. The United States is unusual in that, while the process differs from state to state, redistricting is generally left up to the legislatures of the states. This allows the legislators to choose their voters, rather than having the voters choose their representatives. Gerrymandering can serve to protect a particular political party or individual incumbents. In practice, it generally does both. Whichever party is in power when the maps are redrawn, does so in a way that preserves its own power. This also serves to protect at least some incumbents of the opposing party.

How does that work? To simplify things, let us take a hypothetical state with nice round numbers. Our imaginary State of Apathy has a two party system: the only significant parties are the Conscientious Carnivores and the Virtuous Vegetarians. (Note how both try to claim the high road in their names—their tactics are a different matter.) As it happens the demographics of this state have been changing over the past decade and although the recent census (on which the new maps will be based) reveals that there are more C2s than V2s, the Vegies control the legislature and thus will draw the maps.

HOW APATHY GOT ITS NAME. Now for those nice round numbers. There are 20 million citizens in this fine state. 8 million always vote Carnivore, 6 million are Vegetarians, and there are 6 million swing voters. There are 200 members of the legislature, so the state must be divided into that many districts with 100 thousand citizens in each. So what do the Vegies, with a minority of the population but a present majority in the state houses, do? They pack all the Carnivores together. They draw the maps so that, say, 80% of the districts are 80% C2s, 15% swing voters, and only 5% V2s. Their own people don't stand a snowball's chance in the hot place in those districts.

But, oh, the other 120 districts! Here we have only 1.6m Carnivores together with 4.8m independents and 5.6m Vegies. In theory all of the independents could vote for the Carnies, but that is extremely unlikely. If only 15% of them (a very small number) go for the V2s, the Vegies retain control of the government (this assumes that each district has the same distribution of C2s, V2s and swingers—I said we were making this simple).

So although the Carnivores outnumber the Vegetarians by 2m voters, and the swing voters comprise nearly one-third of the population, the Vegetarians can get a lock-grip on the government. And it is worse than that. Given their numbers, the swing voters should have had considerable influence. That is significant because they are important in keeping the politicians honest. In this case they are virtually frozen out. Politicians of both parties are assured of re-election because they are all in “safe” districts—districts controlled by a comfortable majority of knee-jerk voters of one party or the other. The representatives of the Carnivore districts may not control the government, but their jobs are secure.

So no one has to worry in the least about what the voters want. The voters, believe it or not, notice this. They become increasingly cynical and apathetic. They stop voting, which merely adds to the problem.

It is important to realize that the end of Gerrymandering will not solve all the problems of democracy; it will not even assure that all districts are competitive. Like-minded voters tend to live near each other. Urban populations tend to be liberal and rural folks are apt to be conservative, for example. Sensible and fair districts will help to keep the politicians on their toes and at least somewhat concerned with listening to the voters, but more is needed to insure that minority as well as majority voices are heard. The best way to do that is to change our voting system.

MORE INFORMATION. There is considerable information available about redistricting and the various methods that have been used to reform the system. Handley and Grofman's Redistricting in Comparative Perspective brings together a thorough collection of essays on approaches to the question both in the U.S. and abroad. A very thorough publication, A Citizenís Guide to Redistricting, is available in PDF format from the Brennan Center for Justice. If you want to do something, a good way to become involved is to join Americans for Redistricting Reform. The United States Elections Project has considerable information about redistricting as well as other aspects of the American electoral process. It is a great source of information.

If you would like a better idea of how the redistricting process works you can actually play the game yourself at The ReDistricting Game, an interactive site that lets you play the game the politicians love to play against you. If you can, find a way to see an excellent documentary on the subject: Gerrymandering.

Two other organizations devoted to preserving and protecting American democracy, including redistricting reform, are Common Cause and the League of Women Voters (which, by the way, has accepted male members for some time now.)

[Back to Fix Democracy First]