Deconstructing Eilperin's Redistricting Commentary

by Rob Richie // Published November 15, 2005
Juliet Eilperin is a top congressional reporter for the Washington Post. All indications are that she is a good reporter, but I have great problems with her November 13th commentary in the Post"s "Outlook" section. Given that she has a book coming out next spring that presumably will have much of this analysis, I thought it worthwhile to clearly spell out these differences. Below is a point-by-point rebuttal to her commentary.

Note that I support independent redistricting and applaud the efforts of many who seek it. But my overriding conclusion is that attempts to provide voter choice, accountability of leadership and partisan and racial fairness in representation are impossible within winner-take-all, single-member districts. Failure to confront that reality leads to much exaggeration of what redistricting causes and what redistricting reform can do - and to disturbing suggestions for how to pursue reform like her implicit suggestion to break up urban districts by drawing "reverse gerrymanders" that combine mostly black and Latino liberal city voters with mostly white, moderate suburban voters, almost certainly undermining direct representation of urban voters by candidates of their choice.

Juliet Eilperin's comments are in boxes, making it a kind of dialogue.

You Can't Have a Great Election Without Any Races By Juliet Eilperin Sunday, November 13, 2005; Washington Post Outlook Page B03

By any political measure, the 2006 battle for control of the House of Representatives should be a dramatic contest. The majority party, which has been secure in its power for a decade, has been battered by a round of indictments, rising gasoline prices and controversy over the administration's decision to wage war in Iraq. The minority is aggressively recruiting candidates, raising massive amounts of money and launching daily attacks on its adversary.

But no need to hold your breath to find out the outcome of this epic struggle. The reason: The electoral system is rigged.

Not rigged in the old-fashioned, ballot-stuffing sort of way. Rigged in the sense that operatives in both parties have become so adept at drawing congressional districts that most House seats aren't even up for grabs nowadays. Redistricting - the once-a-decade process in which each state redraws House seats based on the most recent U.S. Census data -- has become more influential in determining congressional races than advertising, political speechifying or grass-roots activism. By segregating voters according to party loyalty, redistricting has insulated incumbents of both parties and dulled competition.

RICHIE Eilperin is right that the partisan tilt of districts determines the great majority of U.S. House races - as indeed we"ve gone to great lengths to show with reports like Monopoly Politics - but she"s wrong to imply that this is anything new and is due primarily to the act of redistricting.
  • First, most congressional races have been non-competitive for decades, with more than nine in ten incumbents winning re-election in every election except one since 1952. From 1968 to 1990, the number of seats changing partiesin each election was less than 10% all but once. In 1990-2004, it has happened twice (in 1992 and 1994, during a period of marked partisan realignment).
  • Second, the partisan tilt is built into our system. The red-blue partisan maps showing presidential results by county or congressional district make this abundantly clear - most parts of the nation naturally have a partisan tilt. Thus, efforts to create competitive districts in fact would have to rely on creating unnatural "reverse gerrymanders."
  • Third, the growth in lack of choice in the last decade has come with a distinct hardening of partisan voting patterns - ones that also have sharply reduced the number of states that are competitive in presidential races, which obviously has nothing to do with gerrymandering.
  • Fourth, redistricting simply shores up on the edges the advantages that incumbents already have -both because they generally represent a district leaning their way, but also have a long history of campaigning in the area, can use congressional franked mail privileges and can work hard at constituent service to shield themselves from partisan shifts.
EILPERIN Just last week voters in California and Ohio were given a chance to overhaul their redistricting systems, and in both states they opted not to do it. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, proposed creating a three-member panel of retired judges to revise the congressional map; Ohio Democrats led a campaign to create an independent citizens' commission that would examine maps creating competitive congressional districts submitted by anyone in the state.

Given that House elections, with incumbent reelection rates reaching 98 percent, are starting to take on all the suspense of the contests for the old Soviet Union's central committee, you'd think that Americans would rush to embrace reforms and inject some healthy competition into U.S. politics. But both proposals lost badly on Tuesday. In California, voters rejected the proposition 59 to 41 percent. Ohio's redistricting ballot initiative fared even worse, losing 70 to 30 percent.

RICHIE Eilperin shows little awareness that this has happened before. In 1988, for example, 402 of 408 incumbents were re-elected nationally, including all 42 in California. Indeed in 1984-88, 127 of 128 California incumbents won. But a congressional redistricting reform ballot measure in California in June 1990 was defeated. If voters see a congressional redistricting reform proposal as partisan in either its motivation or its impact, a majority is unlikely to support it.
EILPERIN "No, we're not going to demand a recount," quipped Keary McCarthy, spokesman for Reform Ohio Now, which backed the idea of an independent redistricting commission.

Two factors doomed the pair of reform initiatives: Most voters seemed to have had a hard time deciding whether redistricting really matters, and those who did, saw it as boosting one party at the other's expense. Thus voters divided along party lines. Californians in counties that favored John Kerry a year ago opposed Proposition 77 by a wide margin of 66 to 34 percent, according to an analysis of voting data by election lawyer Sam Hirsch. In Ohio, counties that backed George W. Bush opposed that state's initiative 76 to 24 percent. "It was partisan and special-interest-driven," says Ohio First spokesman David Hopcraft, whose Republican-affiliated group opposed the state's redistricting measure. "I'm not sure that Ohio voters felt there was a problem."

RICHIE Proposition 77 won 24% in Ohio in Bush counties. With 30% overall, that means it likely won about 35% in Kerry counties - an increase that reflects the fact that many Ohio Democrats have much more to gain from redistricting reform in the short-term, but also a sign that many Democratic voters opposed the proposal. Thus, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that was designed explicitly to boost competition, far more than the California proposal that didn"t seek to boost competition.
EILPERIN But there is a problem, and it's threatening to ossify the American political system. In states across the country, the party in power - often the Republicans, but sometimes the Democrats - has ensured that it can retain control by creating seats so politically skewed that the opposition doesn't have a shot at unseating the incumbent. This sort of "gerrymandering," a nickname that stems from an egregious bit of line-drawing in the early 1800s that created a district resembling a salamander, has undermined Americans' ability to choose whom they send to Washington.
RICHIE "Threatening to ossify"? We"ve had an ossified House for more than half a century. The Democrats controlled the House for 40 years, even while Republicans often won the White House. The House has changed partisan control once during a 50-year period of time in which the White House changed partisan control six times. To pin it all on modern redistricting is absurd.
EILPERIN The result? Stuart Rothenberg, a leading analyst of congressional races, estimates that there are only 25 "truly competitive contests" in the House, out of 435 races. Cook Political Report House editor Amy Walter, another top analyst, puts the number at 28.
RICHIE This is above all the result of winner-take-all elections in a politically tilted geography, compounded by incumbent advantages based on running prior campaigns, having big spending advantages, being able to serve constituents in non-ideological ways that curry favor and congressional free mailing privileges. Redistricting contributes to the problem, but is hardly the problem itself.
EILPERIN In two of the nation's largest states - California and Illinois - the two parties joined together at the start of the decade to protect all incumbents in bipartisan gerrymanders. In 2003 then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay secured a rare mid-decade redistricting that cost five Texas House Democrats their jobs. Now those three states combined, which account for nearly a quarter of the entire House, boast only five competitive races in 2006.

If voters aren't pushing for a change in the system, it's hard to expect members of Congress to volunteer to give themselves tougher competition. "You're asking people to give up an enormous amount of power," says Tennessee Rep. John Tanner, a centrist Democrat who is serving his ninth term. "It's going to have to come from the outside."

Tanner, who introduced legislation in May that would require each state to create an independent redistricting commission of at least five members to draw a state's congressional map just once a decade, says the question of redistricting "goes to the very essence of our democracy," because as currently practiced it liberates ideological extremists on both the left and the right from the need to appeal to the political center.

The status quo, he adds, "produces public officeholders who do not have a broad sense of the public welfare, because it's all party politics that determines who comes here. As the middle shrinks, it becomes harder for Congress to respond to the real problems of the country."

RICHIE Congressman Tanner has shown important leadership in proposing congressional redistricting reform, and we are pleased to have provided assistance to him and his staff - we indeed do believe in an independent redistricting process. But to suggest that the current patterns of ideological and partisan extremism in the House are due to redistricting is a leap that cannot be supported. Very few districts are made significantly more partisan in redistricting. By far the greater factor is political geography itself and the potential incentives for Republicans to seek to polarize the electorate in order to encourage voters to stay partisan in their voting patterns, given that they have about a 50-seat edge in a 50-50 year due to the natural concentration of the Democratic vote in cities. This again points to the real problem: winner-take-all elections, combined with a primary nomination system where each major party chooses their nominees in low-turnout primaries in which the ultimate representative of a district only must win a plurality of the vote within one party"s primary.
EILPERIN Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, has just introduced a competing measure that is similar to Tanner's but promotes plans that maximize minority representation and recognizes that voters live in "communities of interest" based on their common socioeconomic status, language and education.

Both plans have been mainly embraced by Democrats - Tanner's has two Republican co-sponsors, Lofgren's has none - in part because national Democrats have the most to gain from redistricting reform.

RICHIE Eilperin does not support this statement that redistricting reform would help Democrats. It is a highly disputable statement - it"s all in how redistricting reform is done. Nicely compact districts might indeed favor Republicans. But twisted gerrymandered districts that try to break up Democrats" naturally concentrated voters are not likely to be popular with voters.
EILPERIN Part of what makes the redistricting issue so tricky is that it is linked to the effort to boost minority representation in Congress. Hirsch, an attorney at the Chicago-based law firm Jenner & Block who has represented Democrats in several redistricting cases, calculated a few years ago that the 27 most politically lopsided districts in the country - where 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore won at least 77.7 percent of the majority party vote - are Democratic. Almost all of them have African American or Latino representatives. But that also packs Democratic voters into electoral ghettoes, making other districts safer for Republicans.
RICHIE This is Eilperin"s most disturbing paragraph, as she tries to tie the problem of lack of competition on racial minorities and the goal of creating more electoral opportunities for candidates of color in our winner-take-all electoral system. In fact, if you look at the 40 most partisan Democratic districts, every one is in a city (almost all outside the South in big cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles) and would be similar in their partisanship if drawn as compactly as possible. Some perhaps could be made less partisan by making them less compact, but that is not her implication.

The fact is that urban America has a strong Democratic preference right now. Nearly all these districts would be similar in tilt if the Voting Rights Act had never been applied to redistricting or if Iowa-style redistricting was done. The only way they might change is if we decided to break up city districts with weird reverse gerrymanders, probably electing more rich white Democrats from the suburbs.

This speaks to the fact that the Republicans in fact had a bigger bias in their favor in 1972 than now. If 1972 had been a 50-50 year in the presidential race, Nixon would have carried a remarkable number of congressional districts. That bias was obscured by all the people who voted Republican for president, but Democratic in House races - there were any many more split-ticket voters now than today. That change in ticket-splitting isn't due to the Voting Rights Act. That change isn't due to redistricting. It's due much more to the partisan realignment completing its shift in 1994, when the general silliness of the tired bromide that "all politics is local" finally was made transparent.

EILPERIN Hirsch has his own redistricting reform plan, which would mandate an 11-member independent commission for each state with a powerful independent tie-breaker as chairman who would push for plans that emphasize competitiveness and partisan fairness. "Without clear, tough rules ensuring fairness, commissions will do no better than the politicians have done, and we'll get maps nearly as rotten as the ones we have now," Hirsch says.
RICHIE New Jersey uses a similar system, although Hirsch would righly argue that it doesn't have to factor in competitiveness as much as he would like. Still, in 2002-2004, 22 of 26 races were won by landslide margins of at least 20%, and the remaining four by at least 13%. Several districts would likely be competitive if open seats, but most still would not be. Indeed, having mostly non-competitive races is a prerequisite of a system that provides partisan fairness. Under winner-take-all, partisan fairness and universal voter choices are mutually exclusive. This fact is very important for reformers to confront.
EILPERIN Proponents of redistricting reform have not given up hope. Former representative David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat, is championing new redistricting standards at the Council for Excellence in Government. He says that he and his allies will wage a state-by-state campaign that will not benefit one party over the other. "For this to be a successful reform movement, and it's going to be hard, it has to be clinically nonpartisan," Skaggs says.
RICHIE David Skaggs" ongoing support for a state-by-state approach for congressional redistricting reform seems blind to what just happened in California and Ohio. If state-by-state efforts focused on state legislative districting, that would be one thing - and one where discussion of porportional voting methods would be all the more relevant. But state-by-state efforts to get congressional change at this point are ripe with political problems without exploring creative strategies like citizen"s assemblies. It nearly always will be perceived as partisan - and indeed often will have a partisan impact. It also divides the potential reform vote, as some will realize that weakening their states" incumbents will weaken their state compared to other states that protect their incumbents.

We must begin a much more serious conversation about a reform bill coming out of Congress and explore more creative ways to advance a state-based strategy.

EILPERIN In the meantime, however, congressional politics experts like Walter see redistricting as a key factor in helping buttress the Republicans' majority. Walter compared it to a levee the GOP has built to protect its hold on power, which is suddenly under assault from a serious Democratic storm.

"We've never seen this levee system tested," she says. "There's never been a Category 5 hurricane since the Republicans have been in the majority. The question is, what does it take to break down this levee, if you're a Democrat?"

Last week's double blow to redistricting reform in California and Ohio isn't encouraging. National pollster Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist who conducted polling on California's Proposition 77, says the two initiatives didn't resonate with voters. "They needed to be defined as change, not a political power play," Lake says. "It's tough to get such a technical issue defined for the public."

RICHIE. Precisely. Changing who draws single-member districts is asking the voters to exchange one set of political elites determining their representation with another set of elites. This is not political empowerment and voters are unlikely to get very excited about it. In contrast, a proportional voting system in multi-seat districts would make all voters more powerful, giving them real choices, balanced representation and greater access for women and racial and political minorities. Properly constructed, a campaign for it could bring a disparate array of forces together behind it, with more than partisan passion.
EILPERIN Or, as Rothenberg put it, "It's just not as sexy or easy to explain as, 'Are you for or against prescription drugs, equal rights, or a beer tax?' " Just because it's hard to explain, however, doesn't mean it's not worth promoting. Few people would question that in the post-Watergate election of 1974 and again in the 1994 Republican Revolution, the American public decided it wasn't happy with its representation in Washington. The question is whether it will be able to make that choice again in 2006, or ever.
RICHIE For most voters, the answer will be "never" as long as we stick with winner-take-all, single-member districts. Anyone satisfied with that answer needs to think long and hard about what American democracy should be.
Juliet Eilperin is a reporter on The Post's national staff and author of the forthcoming book, "Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives" (Rowman & Littlefield).
RICHIE It seems likely that this book will suggest that redistricting is the major cause of this partisanship rather than one of its nasty byproducts. I disagree, and believe the evidence strongly supports my conclusion. We've got to agree on the facts before we move to real reform, which is why I hope this post contributes to a better dialogue about those facts.

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