The First Article of the Constitution states that members of the House of Representatives shall be elected every two years, provides the qualifications for these offices, and how the number of Representatives each state elects shall be apportioned on the basis of population. The times, place, and manner of these elections is to be determined by each state legislature. However, Congress may at any time “make or alter such regulations.” Unfortunately, the Constitution does not describe the method by which Congressional districts shall be redrawn consistent with changes in population.
Though “Senatorial districts” are constant in perpetuity, the boundaries of Congressional districts (and state legislative districts) are redrawn every ten years after each census by state legislatures. This permits normal landmarks to be disregarded to shape districts in ways that will benefit incumbent politicians, help a party’s candidates, or lessen the voting power of particular ethnic groups, maximizing political advantage for the party controlling the state’s government.
The districts that result from this process are often bizarre and make no geographical sense. This technique was first utilized by the Democratic-Republican Party in Massachusetts in 1812 and signed into law by the then Governor Elbridge Gerry and has been subsequently known as gerrymandering. It was then and continues to be an impediment to the Democratic ideal of every person’s vote being weighted equally. In recent years, the use of gerrymandering to gain political leverage has increased, aided by computer analysis of voting tendencies of different areas. With this information, the dominant state party can shape congressional and legislative districts to the point where winning candidates are virtually preordained.
Usually, in order to pass, gerrymandering entails that both the state legislature and the governor’s office be in the hands of the same party. Recently, with Republicans controlling four times as many state legislatures as the Democrats, gerrymandering has aided the GOP to maintain its hold on Congress. This is in spite of the fact that Democrats nationally won more of the popular vote for Congressional seats than the Republicans. In some states, the disconnect between the popular vote and the allocation of House seats strains credulity. For instance in North Carolina, more than half of the electorate voted for Democratic members of Congress, but Republicans won about 70% of the seats. In Pennsylvania, the GOP won three quarters of the seats though the Democrats took about half the votes. And in Michigan, the Democrats won a majority of the Congressional votes, but only five of the fourteen Representatives are Democratic. On the other hand, Maryland and Illinois with Democratic control of the state houses drew their districts in ways that favored their own party.
Though there are guidelines for how districts should be drawn, state legislatures generally have a free hand in deciding their shape, as long as each district has approximately the same population. There is little transparency in the process and incumbent members of Congress often play a role in determining how the lines of their districts will be drawn. Cities may be sliced and diced in order to keep rural and suburban districts safe for GOP candidates. Court challenges of redistricting by minority groups who feel disenfranchised, or by individual citizens, may at times bring changes to boundaries, but for the most part the legislatures have their way.
There have been attempts at having independent redistricting commissions (IRCs) redrawing district lines in California and Arizona, but political manipulation of the process has occurred. Similarly, some other states have special committees or commissions to aid in redistricting, but political appointees to these groups and the need for final legislative approval guarantees that politics will play a role.
Contributions by Super PACs and wealthy individuals, which did not appear to play much of a role in the 2012 presidential and senatorial races, were important in congressional and state races. In fact, there has been a particular effort by affluent Republicans to influence state races, gaining control of legislatures and governorships. With this, legislation favored by corporations and the affluent, such as right-to-work laws have been enacted. But in addition, Congressional districts have been redrawn to their liking, increasing the probability that the House will remain in Republican hands through 2020 when the next census occurs.
The only way fairness can return to voting for members of Congress and state legislatures is for every state to mandate a truly independent commission to redraw district lines impartially and transparently, eliminating political considerations from the formula. With Congress and a majority of state houses controlled by Republicans, the only possible way for this to occur is through individual state referenda, as national or state legislation is unlikely.
There are a number of non-profit groups working for redistricting reform such as Americans for Redistricting Reform (ARR) and Common Cause. However, their efforts have not yet gained much publicity given more pressing national issues. Unfortunately, these issues will be decided by members of Congress, many of whom have been elected from safe districts and do not have to consider public opinion in the way they vote. Because of legislative redistricting, it will continue to be more difficult to get compromise and enactment of bills that America wants and needs.
em>A VietNam vet and a Columbia history major who became a medical doctor, Bob Levine has watched the evolution of American politics over the past 40 years with increasing alarm. He knows he’s not alone. Partisan grid-lock, massive cash contributions and even more massive expenditures on lobbyists have undermined real democracy, and there is more than just a whiff of corruption emanating from Washington. If the nation is to overcome lockstep partisanship, restore growth to the economy and bring its debt under control, Levine argues that it will require a strong centrist third party to bring about the necessary reforms. Levine’s previous book, Shock Therapy For the American Health Care System took a realist approach to health care from a physician’s informed point of view; Resurrecting Democracy takes a similar pragmatic approach, putting aside ideology and taking a hard look at facts on the ground. In his latest book, Levine shines a light that cuts through the miasma of party propaganda and reactionary thinking, and reveals a new path for American politics. This post is cross posted from his blog.