With Redistricting Reform Losses, Where Do We Go From Here?

by David Moon // Published November 18, 2005
This November, voters in California and Ohio soundly rejected ballot measures calling for independent redistricting processes to be created for each state's Congressional and state legislative line-drawing processes. In California 60% of voters rejected this proposal, while in Ohio the figure was closer to 70%. Both losses have many reformers pointing the finger at small pieces of each proposal or other electoral dynamic, all the while missing a larger point.

As some reform advocates are quick to point out, the failures of CA Proposition 77 and the Reform Ohio Now redistricting reform initiative, do not indicate voters dislike reform, nor do they indicate voters disagree with some minor aspect of each proposal, such as redistricting by judges - BUT these failures do show that voters are suspicious of apparent partisan motivations. Both measures were heavily funded by the opposing party's backers in each state and around the country, and both measures drew partisan suspicions given that they called for mid-decennial redistricting of both congressional and state legislative districts - a tactic that Tom Delay used successfully in Texas. Nevertheless, redistricting reform backers have pledged to march forward with the same tactics in other states.

Redistricting reform is certainly an important and laudable goal, but throughout this debate, FairVote has argued that proponents of the plans often oversold their ability to create fair representation, increased voter choice, and competitive races. These goals are often mutually exclusive under the various reform plans advocates seek - because they rely on the limitations of winner-take-all election methods. Essentially the problem for satisfying all of the reformers' goals is that you can change the district lines and who makes them, but you can't change the fact that any given area has a natural partisan density and that incumbency brings electoral advantages.

So with voters still seeking reforms to create elections in the public interest, the time has come for an honest dialogue about the actual effects and limitations of redistricting reform. More importantly, the time has come to embrace multimember districts with proportional voting as a part of the reform dialogue, and to at least do something unheard of in political circles: let the citizens decide. States should look to create citizens assemblies to study and recommend electoral changes, as British Columbia recently did with much success. British Columbia was facing pressure to change its electoral system, but rather than do so unilaterally, they randomly selected a representative group of citizens (like in a jury) who studied various election methods and recommended one for their government. Such an idea has recently been proposed by a number of scholars, in response to the redistricting reform failures of late, and it holds great promise in finding a bottom-up model for building consensus for otherwise difficult reforms.

Likewise, reformers should ensure that any future redistricting reform efforts grant commissions the ability to at least consider and have the option to recommend multimember districts and proportional voting systems. Giving the commissioners more options will allow them to actually be able to meet all of the goals of redistricting reformers (ie: compact, contiguous, competitive districts that fairly represent communities of interest) without need for painful sacrifice.

In the meantime, Congress should embrace national efforts to reform redistricting, and in doing so avoid the state-by-state partisan calculations that the failed initiatives created. It is no wonder that the minority party in both California and Ohio backed the reform initiative - but this dynamic would be eliminated if members of Congress stepped up and took a leadership role in this dialogue. It starts with supporting one of two Congressional independent redistricting bills (proposed by Rep.'s Tanner and Lofgren).

[David Lesher's Op. Ed: A Citizens Assembly for California] [Rob Richie and John Anderson: A National Redistricting Effort] [Redistricting Reform Watch 2005]