Redistricting Reform: What's Next?

by Rob Richie // Published November 10, 2005
For years FairVote has raised the flag for the problem of lack of voter choice in our elections. Our reports like Dubious Democracy, Monopoly Politics and public interest guide to redistricting and my former colleague Steven Hill"s book Fixing Elections were among the key spurs toward a shift in political opinion toward the importance of tackling gerrymandering.

But a funny thing happened in that shift. Some of the big funders and reform players skipped over the parts of our analysis that didn"t fit in with their view of what is practical or acceptable to a political establishment that is poorly informed about the range of reasonable alternatives to winner-take-all elections. They went directly from our point that the political geography of our elections is the most important factor for determining who wins and loses and by what victory margin to suggesting that the problem could be fixed through a more public interest process of redistricting.

And this year, some reform backers were able to push ballot measures in two big states; Ohio and California. Both measures had serious money behind them, along with political stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, John McCain and Common Cause"s Chellie Pingree. And both went down in flames - California by 19% and Ohio by a whopping 40%.

So what now?

Tackling Winner-Take-All

First, we make two key points about the limitations of any strategy that is founded on maintaining all single-member, winner-take-all districts:

  • Winner-take-all gives huge power over representation to whoever draws the district lines. So redistricting reform means taking the power over determining most people"s representation from one set of political elites and giving it to another set of political elites. Criteria-driven approaches can be more reflective of a democratic process, but it is very hard to rely only on rigid criteria and still balance reasonable goals.
  • When seeking to balance goals, single-member districts simply cannot accommodate three fundamental principles of free and fair elections: universal voter choice, leadership accountability and fair representation. Proportional voting systems achieve all three better than a winner-take-all system, and absolutely are the only means to achieve all three of them simultaneously.
That means anyone truly serious about the problem of lack of voter choice must confront that we have reached winner-take-all"s endgame: it just doesn"t work effectively in modern politics. We need some kind of multi-seat proportional voting methods. There are various reasonable alternatives detailed on our website.

Winning Redistricting Reform

But we also would like to see public interest redistricting succeed in conjunction with moving toward a fairly balanced proportional voting system. Unfortunately, the redistricting reform measures in California and Ohio had serious shortcomings. They might have been hard to win regardless, given political dynamics in each state and how they got to the ballot, but these flaws almost certainly hurt and may have been decisive, at least in California.

  • First, they focused on both congressional and state legislative redistricting rather than just state legislative redistricting. That decision earned the reform side big dollars from those with partisan interests, but also spurred much more vigorous opposition. Furthermore, when reform is pursued state by state, the reality is that a big state can lose power on Capitol Hill if unilaterally putting more of its incumbents at risk than another state.
  • Second, they exposed themselves to charges of partisan motivations by having redistricting be done immediately - before the 2006 elections - rather than waiting until 2011.
  • Third, the Ohio measure was based on the concept of "good gerrymandering" -- e.g., putting the goal of competitiveness over two that voters are more likely to see as fair: compactness and maintaining local jurisdiction lines. That"s almost certainly going to be a tough sell with the many voters who don"t like the idea of using redistricting to achieve political aims.
  • Fourth, too much of the advocacy was based on the false claim that the measures would have a significant impact on competition. (For instance, the Rose Institute issued a study in California claiming it would increase the number of competitive districts from zero to ten. But using our methodology to measure similarly competitive districts, the current districts have nine competitive districts. That suggests an increase of... one competitive seat. ) A more salient argument is to focus on how corrupting it is to allow politicians to draw their own districts - helping their friends and hurting their enemies.
If redistricting reformers are serious about change and addressing lack of competition, I believe they must do each of the following:
  • Put more energy into the long slog of a congressional bill setting standards for all states at the same time - thus taking state-by-state partisan calculations off the map. Already more than 60 US House Members have signed onto such legislation.
  • Focus in states on state legislative redistricting apart from congressional - particularly in the short-term, while seeking to build a winning track record.
  • Base most arguments for public interest redistricting on the corruption that takes place in the current process.
  • Put traditional standards of compactness and maintaining county lines, along with compliance with the Voting Rights Act, over trying to create competition.
  • In whatever reform one does, support universal voter choice and competition through proportional voting - - either in multi-seat districts or in a "mixed member" voting system. This approach is absolutely necessary to provide both choice and fairness.