Redistricting need not be political blood sport

// Published May 13, 2011

By Krist Novoselic And Rob Richie, July 10, 2010
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As the charcoals cool and the fireworks fade after another Independence Day celebration of our ideals of freedom and equality, a specter remains: the gerrymander, poised to deny voters an equal voice in their elections for yet another decade.

The trouble begins with two seemingly innocent facts: The Constitution requires a census of the population every 10 years, and the 14th Amendment requires that states and cities redistrict legislative lines so that they have the same number of residents per representative. Such population corrections to district lines might seem relatively benign - a task for a few computer-savvy interns able to move the necessary thousands of people from one district to another based on some reasonable criteria.

But redistricting instead has become the worst of political blood sports because of the power it gives to those who draw those lines. In the United States, we elect nearly all our legislators by winner-take-all rules, where 51% of voters earn 100% of representation. The power to suppress the voices of as many of 49% of voices in a given area has been an irresistible temptation to our leaders for two centuries - indeed the "gerry" of gerrymandering refers to Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who helped draw a Massachusetts congressional district that looked like a salamander.

While more outlandish districts may be described cutely as Gerry-manders, Rorschach inkblots, earmuffs and starfish, the bottom line is insidious no matter how compact a district might look. Redistricting allows manipulation of our elections by incumbent politicians to help partisan allies, hurt political enemies and choose their voters before the voters choose them.

Congress has the power to establish standards to protect the public interest in redistricting but has failed to act even in the wake of scandals like the Texas "re-redistricting" battle in 2003 that led dozens of lawmakers to flee the state in a failed attempt to block new lines that ultimately cost Texas Democrats more than a third of their House seats.

This leaves reform to the states. Wisconsin happens to have neighbors who set a good example. Iowa has a nonpartisan redistricting process touted by many as the fairest in the nation, while Minnesota is one of the few states where real redistricting reform legislation may pass this year. As in most states, however, redistricting in Wisconsin is left entirely to the governor and legislative leaders.

What happens in redistricting next year comes down to this year's elections - the blunt reality is that your representation in 2016 may well be more dependent on who's in political power in 2011 than any vote cast in 2016.

But voters need not be helpless. In this year's elections, they can ask candidates to commit to promoting greater transparency and public participation, including sensible transparency principles recently released by the Brookings Institution that would allow technology to be used to put sunlight on the redistricting process.

The information revolution is transforming our democracy. Citizens now have access to online apps that enable them to see their districts - and even draw their own. Data used in redistricting will allow people to compare their maps to official proposals in real time.

Longer term, though, it's time to look past partisanship and toward proven solutions for giving voters the power in every election to determine their own representation no matter who has drawn the lines. Several American cities use systems of "shared representation."

For example, if there are five seats on a city council, 20% of voters can come together to elect one of the five seats. A 51% majority of voters will elect a majority of seats, but not all of them, thereby creating room at the table for new voices.

At the state level, we could have a fewer number of larger districts, each with three or four legislators who collectively speak for the majority and minority of constituents.

There are longstanding, constitutionally protected ways of holding these alternative voting elections. Illinois in fact had just such a system from 1870 to 1980. With cumulative voting with three legislators per district, nearly every voter in the state had both Democrats and Republicans representing them.

As the two major parties had constituents in every corner of the state, representatives had more incentive to work across party lines, and independents and third parties had more ability to hold the major parties accountable.

A 2000 commission led by former Democratic Rep. Abner Mikva and former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, both of Illinois, found that loss of the system increased partisanship and reduced voter choice.

As Thomas Jefferson said, we need "Equal rights for all but special privileges for none." Gerrymandering gives electoral privileges to a few, and in ways that are hidden from view. Let's open the window on redistricting in 2011 - and then explore how best to give Wisconsin voters real power over their representation.

Krist Novoselic is chairman of FairVote. Rob Richie is its executive director. They are part of the coalition that promotes greater public awareness about redistricting and alternative approaches.  First published at