The Redistricting Game: Parties 2, Citizens 0

November 14, 2005

When we remember a ballgame because of the umpire's calls, it is not a good sign. Umpires are supposed to be fair to the point of invisibility. But all the same, umpires should umpire and players should play. Well, welcome to redistricting American-style, where there are no umpires and players make the rules.

Every ten years following the census, legislative district maps are redrawn to reflect changes in population. But the process is run by elected officials whose principal interest is the distribution of votes in their party's favor. The majority party concentrates its opponents into a handful of districts, thus permitting its own candidates to coast to reelection in districts from which opponents have been surgically removed. The minority party enjoys a few safe seats while the rest of its candidates lose heavily in redrawn and unbalanced new districts.

This method of redistricting destroys competition by creating one-party districts. One-party districts, in turn, create one-dimensional candidates. One-dimensional candidates lead to ideologically polarized politics and often to governments that cannot govern.

On November 8, voters in California and Ohio rejected two worthy measures intended to wrest redistricting away from elected officials and make it subject to independent commissions. California's Proposition 77 would have had legislators selecting a three-judge panel of retired judges to draw up legislative districts.

Ohio's measure called for sitting judges to select two members of a five-member commission. The commission was mandated to use competitiveness as a primary criterion for the creation of a new district. According to the Secretary of State's Office, the redistricting commission would be able to "consider whether to alter a given redistricting plan to preserve communities of interest based on geography, economics, or race" as long as this did not completely abandon the competitiveness standard. Ohio's plan would have achieved nonpartisan redistricting guided by important criteria of representativeness. But this plan at best offered only half a loaf. It's true that a balance of political forces is desirable in single-member districts. Competition increases turnout and forces candidates to defend their proposals and consider alternatives. Competition reminds the winning candidate that she represents the entire district.

Unfortunately, the competition the Ohio proposal intended to foster is limited to the two main parties—two parties that hardly represent the broad range of citizens' views. No political party deserves government support for its candidates simply because competitive elections are desirable.

Elections instead should ensure that all significant points of view are reflected in the outcome, the equivalent of holding up a mirror to society. Thus, competitiveness, geographic location, race, and economic status may all be important factors in achieving faithful representation. Ohio's plan merely pitted these criteria against one another. What should be done?

Under systems of proportional representation (PR), it is much easier to accommodate all the criteria for fair representation without sacrificing one for another. Multiple parties that result from PR can represent communities of interest based on race, economics, and geography—not to mention a wide range of political viewpoints and even religious confessions.

Legislatures produced by PR are more representative than the polarized legislatures produced in the American system. PR guarantees a seat at the table for a wider range of perspectives, in proportion to their presence in society. Under PR, parties receive no undue privilege, and citizens' votes shape the outcome.

Until we try something like PR, all these other changes will do little to redress citizens' feelings of powerlessness or create a genuine and full competition of viewpoints.

—Timothy Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College