Electoral Reform- Part 6: Redistricting

The Constitution requires that every ten years, the country must conduct a census of its population. In the most recent census, several of my more conservative friends believed this to be some liberal conspiracy of varying sorts and asserted their intention not to return their census form. Of course, they do so at their own political peril. The purpose is to first determine the number of representatives one gets in the House and second, to determine congressional boundary lines. The first part is an indication of migration of people to and from any state and population growth or loss within that state. The second part gives an indication of where population has grown or decreased within any particular state. Since the number of House seats is set at 435, essentially a state’s population is divided by that number and it determines how many seats they get in the House. Additionally, under the Supreme Court’s one man-one one-vote ruling, each district within a state must be roughly equal in population.

In the 2010 census, it is interesting to note that only one reliably blue state- Washington- gained any seats while seven lost seats. Conversely, only one red state- Louisiana- lost any seats while five gained seats. In the so-called traditional swing states, two gained seats and one lost seats. On a gross level, we can say that the population, as far as politics goes, has shifted into more conservative states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah at the expense of more liberal states like Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. In fact, the only red state to lose population to the point of losing a House seat was Louisiana and that population loss was mainly attributable to a natural disaster and its aftermath.

Within states, we have seen an increasing tendency towards suburban and now exurban growth at the expense of metropolitan areas. New York City is a perfect example where one whole congressional district was simply eliminated in the New York City metropolitan area. Philadelphia is another example where it now comprises mainly three congressional districts instead of four. Most of that population, if it has not moved out of state, has moved to the suburbs. In the Philadelphia area, winning those suburbs is now the key to statewide electoral success.

Identification with a political ideology in any state or area does not explain all of the migration or growth of the population. Other factors like employment opportunity, retirement to warmer climates and other things affect these phenomena. The point is that when it does occur, it causes a necessary realignment of districts. This is especially true when a state loses or gains a seat and that importance increases the more gains or losses experienced. Seven states have one representative and simply do not have to concern themselves with redistricting. Five of them are red states and two are blue states. Three states entertain the suggestions of a bipartisan redistricting commission, but the legislature has final say on the districts (Florida, Iowa, and Maine). Six states have bipartisan redistricting commissions that establish the district lines without legislative approval- Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey and Washington. The remaining 34 states have their districts drawn by the legislature and approved by the Governor. Hence, in these 34 states, whoever controls the legislature and the Governor’s office wields the most say over those boundaries. This is where gerrymandering enters the lexicon as the party in power aims to protect incumbents or target the opposition party’s representatives by weakening their districts.

It is best to compare the six bipartisan commission states against the other states to see if these commissions create more competitive districts. A good way of determining this is through the Cook PVI ratings of congressional districts. In states where there is a bipartisan commission, 23.8% of the 88 districts are competitive. In the states where the legislature controls the process exclusively, only 16% of the total districts are considered competitive. In the other three states, a mere 12.1% of the districts are competitive indicating that a “citizen’s advisory” system creates the least likelihood of creating competitive districts. In the states where districts are drawn by the legislatures, in those states where both houses are controlled by Republicans, 16.5% of the districts are competitive. Meanwhile, where Democrats control both houses, 11.5% of the districts are competitive. Finally, in states where one party controls one house and the other party another house, 18.2% of the resulting districts are considered competitive. While a bipartisan commision seems to create the most competitive redistricting, a two-party legislature is the second best method towards those ends while a Republican-led legislature comes in third and a Democratic-led legislature last.

Obviously, bipartisan commissions exclusively in control of the redistricting process are less likely to succumb to political pressures. Most foreign counties with analogous systems use bipartisan commissions. One has to ask whether putting redistricting in the hands of these commissions will necessarily decrease the alleged political polarization. The answer is likely not. For example, many consider the Senate even more polarized than the House in certain respects yet they are not subject to district lines. Redistricting did not cost Robert Bennett or Richard Lugar their jobs. Both were considered moderate Republicans. Likewise, Arlen Specter’s jump to the Democratic Party in 2010 had nothing to do with redistricting, nor did Olympia Snowe’s retirement.

However, gerrymandering is akin to a politician deciding who their voters will be before the voters even get a chance to decide who will represent them. The fact is that no legislature or bipartisan commission can control for the geographical clustering of like-minded voters. Liberals will migrate to liberal areas and conservatives will migrate to conservative areas. Given the results of the 2010 census, that is good news for the Republican Party as mostly conservative states gained appreciable population and House seats (and electoral votes), or so one would think. That would be true in a homogenous population, but a lot of Arizona’s and Texas’ population growth was attributable to a growing Hispanic population, a segment of the electorate increasingly siding with Democrats. As the conservatives moved out of these liberal states, the liberal states simply became more liberal. The only way this can be controlled in any way is to restrict population migration. One can “even out” the political landscape if we ship liberals off to Wyoming or Texas or conservatives to New York and New Jersey. And we see this “sorting” tendency even within states. For example, in my home state of New Jersey, the fastest growing county in terms of population is Ocean. It is also long known as a Republican bastion in the state. Its growth is attributable to the loss of population in the more liberal northern counties of Union and Essex. We know conservatives are moving into Ocean county because it is no less Republican than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Likewise, we know that a smaller, but more liberal base is left behind in the more urban Union and Essex counties because they are no less Democratic than they were 20-30 years ago. In fact, they may be more Democratic now. The fact remains that there are more lopsided Democratic and lopsided Republican districts than there are competitive districts and nothing will change this phenomena. Also, when one looks at where the lop-sided Democratic districts exist, they are generally blue states and the same goes for the lop-sided Republican districts most occurring in red states. California/New York are examples on the Left and Texas/Utah on the Right.

Florida’s recent redistricting reforms are interesting since they place certain restrictions on the process. These include matters such as geographical contiguity. In many states, many districts look like snakes wrapping around one another attempting to capture a desired population. Another restriction or standard is compactness or adherence to existing political or geographical boundaries. Obviously, the ideal would be to keep counties or cities intact. Since each district should have a population of about 720,000 under one man-one, one-vote, cities or counties exceeding that threshold will necessarily be subdivided.

Gerrymandering has existed since the founding of our country and will likely never go away. Bipartisan commissions seem to be a step in the right direction. However, as we have seen in California, political parties (the Democrats here) still had a say and influence in the process. Regardless, if legislatively drawn or done by a commission, transparency in the entire process- not back room deals- and citizen involvement are important. The second aspect of necessary reform is a thorough review of pre-clearance under the VRA.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 in order to break down institutional barriers against blacks voting, primarily in the south. Since then, ethnicity is also a characteristic to fall under the law’s purview. The most controversial aspect of the law is that certain states or even parts of other states require clearance from the Justice Department or the District Court in DC in order to effectuate any change to voting laws. This clearance runs the gamut from the location of polling places to redistricting or even how late the polls should be open. If you happen to be unfortunate enough to live in Alabama, for example, then any change to any voting law must be approved first. While this may force legislators to be conscious of the effects of these changes as concerns race, it also creates an inequity in the entire system.

The first is that it assumes that racial discrimination in voting practices is intrinsic to the south. While they may have been the primary culprits in the past, to assert that racial discrimination in voting is a “southern thing” is simply false. Jim Crow and Jim Crow-like laws existed in practically every state in the union. Secondly, today’s VRA standards are the same ones that were used in 1965. It is quite obvious that today’s south is a world of difference from the south of 1965. Third, the creation of districts where a minority group constitutes the majority of the population is surefire way to get from under the yoke of the VRA. In effect, they are using a quota system which is race-based which is illegal under any other circumstance. It is like saying that we are a color-blind society except when it comes to redistricting in which case it is perfectly fine to be race-conscious. It is also somewhat prejudicial in that it assumes that because the majority of a district is, for example, black, they will automatically vote for a black despite their qualifications to hold office. Is that the ideal we strive towards?

The bottom line is that redistricting reforms will not cure the alleged ills of an allegedly broken political system or process. Republicans will defend Republican districts and target Democratic ones and the Democrats will do likewise to Republicans when they get the chance. Until there is a sea change of population shift in this country, the red states will be red states and likely have pockets of blue while the blue states will be blue with pockets of red. It is the purple states that are of most interest. And that is not such a bad thing since it focuses the battle. So, despite soaring rhetoric from an innocuous Presidential wannabe, we are a nation of red states and blue states.