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“Please don’t take my mother out of my district.”

by TonyAngelo on December 9, 2008 · 1 comment

With the 2008 election behind us, campaign finance reform in ashes and the 2010 census looming, redistricting reform has emerged as the next good government battleground.  The increased attention to a normally boring and usually litigated issue is in large part due to the partisan gerrymandering in Texas that followed the 2000 census.  What’s mostly forgotten is that a similar attempt was made in Colorado but failed in the courts.  

In the aftermath of Texas and Colorado a national consensus of sorts to reform the way redistricting is done has emerged.  There have been multiple efforts in numerous states towards some sort of reform and many different ideas from all over the political spectrum about what kind of form it should take.  

The calls for change are only likely to increase as we near 2010, so now is as good a time as any to take a look at the issues in play and what reform might look like.
A little history

In 2001 the Texas and Colorado legislature were under split control and when redistricting came up, as often happens, gridlock ensued.  In Colorado the task of redistricting was handled by a panel of federal judges, in Texas the matter was handed over to the Legislative Redistricting Board.  In 2002 Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature in Colorado and Texas.  Upon gaining power Republicans in both states promptly put a stop to the 200 year old practice of only redistricting every ten years.

The Texas story, I’m sure, is familiar to everyone but I’ll recap it anyway, for the sake of completeness.  In 2003 Governor Rick Perry and the Republican legislature, backed by Tom Delay, tried to make redistricting the centerpiece of that year’s legislative session.  When that didn’t work the Governor called a special session and the Democrats fled to Oklahoma and New Mexico.  Eventually the Democrats came back, the plan got passed and the Republican caucus got fatter.  The issue ended up in the US Supreme Court, who ruled that district 23 was in violation of the Voting Rights Act, but the rest of the redistricting plan was allowed to stand.

Colorado seems a bit more instructive of how these things tend to play out, with Texas as the exception.  The Colorado state legislature passed a gerrymandered redistricting plan that was promptly dismissed by the Colorado Supreme Court, citing the fact that the state constitution only allowed for decennial redistricting. The case was appealed to the US Supreme Court who decided they didn’t even want to hear it.  Not to be stopped so easily Colorado Republicans sued again, and again took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court.  This time the court took the case and sided unanimously against the plaintiffs.  As a result Colorado has a sensible looking map and some actually competitive districts.  

The courts haven’t always decided redistricting matters though; it wasn’t until the 1962 US Supreme Court case Baker v. Carr that the courts authority over these matters was established.  Charles Baker, a resident of Tennessee, sued his state’s election official Joe Carr on the grounds that his vote was being diluted due to the state’s failure to reapportion, in violation of the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.  It had been 60 years since Tennessee had reapportioned its districts.  Shortly after, in 1964, the US Supreme Court ruled that redistricting plans not based on equal population distribution would be rejected.

In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed and almost immediately arguments over its meaning ensued.  Does it require districts to be drawn so that racial minorities are given a voice in congress?  That seems to be the common interpretation, but until recently the court decisions had been few and contradictory.  The most recent decision on this matter, and perhaps the most definitive, came as a result of the Texas redistricting case.  The US Supreme Court ruled that district 23 was a violation of the Voting Rights Act because it diluted the power of the states large Hispanic population.

The push for reform

Almost since the moment people realized what was happening in Texas there have been calls for redistricting reform.  From the DLC, to the League of Women Voters to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the calls have come from across the partisan and non-partisan spectrum.  

Here is what the Governator had to say about it, and frankly I don’t know if it could be said better:

“And one last item. And I don’t want to be a pest about this. I again this year raise the issue of political reform. California politics is a centrifuge that forces voters and policies and parties away from the center. The centrifuge is powered by the way our legislative and congressional districts are drawn. Now we all know what they’re talking about here. They are drawn to eliminate party competition. They work against the mainstream, which is where most Californians are. Currently, ours is not a system of the people, by the people and for the people. It is a system of the parties, by the parties and for the parties.
In the past three election cycles, only 4 out of California’s 459 congressional and legislative seats changed hands. There was more turnover in the Hapsburg monarchy than in the California legislature.
I ask you to work with me to create an independent commission to fix a political system that has become petrified by self-interest. California certainly is not alone in this. No state legislature in U.S. history has put a redistricting reform on the ballot. California though can be the first, we can be the leader.
You will not benefit politically from this. I will not benefit politically from this. But the people will benefit from this. I ask you to work with me to do the right thing for the people.”

In fact Gov. Schwarzenegger supported a redistricting ballot initiative in 2005 that was ultimately rejected by the voters for a number of reasons, not least of which was the appearance of a partisan power grab.  Ohio voters were faced with a similar ballot initiative that year that was rejected for strikingly similar reasons. Three common threads emerged in both states campaigns; the current system was ripe for corruption, competition is lacking and that communities need to be preserved.  

Exit polling showed that two of these arguments didn’t wash with voters; they didn’t see redistricting as a corrupt practice and had little interest in competition because they saw that as being responsible for more negative campaigns and advertising.  In other words, people would rather the election be a foregone conclusion than polluting the airwaves for months.  

On November 4th of this year California voters passed prop 11 51-49, although it has been somewhat obscured by all the vitriol surrounding the passage of prop 8. Prop 11 calls for the formation of a 14 member redistricting commission, randomly selected from an applicant pool, with the final makeup consisting of five members from each of the state’s two largest political parties and four members unaffiliated with either party.  Approval of maps requires nine votes.  Some standards prop 11 establishes are; geographical compactness and the preservation of neighborhood integrity.

Some local views

Recently the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute Center for the Study of Politics and Governance hosted a conference on redistricting.  Among the speakers was Democratic Senate majority leader Larry Pogemiller who has introduced a redistricting reform bill of his own and was the DFL point man on redistricting in 1991 and 2001.  In his speech Majority leader Pogemiller covered what he thought were four myths about redistricting and what factors need to be considered in any reform efforts.

The four myths he cited were; that you can take politics out of redistricting, that legislators are only concerned with their self interest, smart political calculations can overcome the will of the voters and that you can do what Texas did.  The first two myths he boiled down to one statement; politics plays a part, but is not the motivating factor, stability is.

I hate to digress from the issue of redistricting to critique a speech, but I can’t help myself.  It seems obvious to me that stability is in the self interest of legislators, they got elected with the system that’s in place.  The Majority leader claims that self interest doesn’t play a part while also claiming that stability is the driving factor.  If stability is the driving factor than self interest is playing a part. Also, myth three and four are exactly the same thing.  Texas used smart political calculations to try and overcome the will of the voters.  Alright, back to redistricting.

Majority leader Pogemiller than laid out what he saw as the keys to reform; that the process be inclusive, open, transparent, accountable and that it be based on principles that will withstand court action.  Those principles are; substantially equal population, that districts be convenient, contiguous and compact and that voting strength of racial minorities be preserved.  Some other redistricting principles he brought up were; not dividing cities, counties and towns, that communities of interest be preserved, promoting political competitiveness and not doing things with the purpose of protecting or defeating an incumbent.

Also speaking at the conference was State Representative Laura Brod and she really likes the way Iowa does redistricting.  In Iowa the redistricting plan begins with the Legislative Service Bureau, who draws the preliminary map, and then goes to the state legislature for approval.  The emphasis of the map drawing process is on population equality, contiguousness, compactness and keeping cities unified and allows for input from the public.  Some specific things that the Iowa process forbids using in making the map are political affiliation, previous election results and the addresses of incumbents.

Representative Brod also mentioned a game that was developed by USC and the Annenberg Center called The Redistricting Game.  I must warn you though, the game is addictive, so play at your own risk.

The Scientific approach

Another way that redistricting can now be done, due to the wonders of technology, is by mathematical formula.  One such formula, the shortest-splitline algorithm, only cares about equal population distribution.  Essentially it’s a process of equally dividing the population into half with the shortest-splitline until the desired number of legislative districts is achieved.  As an example Minnesota would look like this.

The upside to the shortest-splitline algorithm is that there is only one way to do it and that is the way the algorithm draws the lines, it is only driven by the desire to balance population between districts.  The downside is that the algorithm ignores all geographical features, county boundaries, city boundaries and does not take into account minority populations.

What to do

There are many competing interests at play here, practical, political, logistical, minority, geographical and each issue has a different level of priority in every state.  It’s because of all these conflicting interests, not to mention all the bigger problems we face as a country, that make any sort of national reform unlikely, so reform will have to come at the state level.

With Minnesota likely to lose a house seat after the 2010 census there will have to be a significant change to our congressional map and someone’s district will be eliminated.  It’s for this reason that the push for reform is coming now.  

This leads to the question, does Minnesota need redistricting reform?  Our legislative map certainly doesn’t look like some of the gerrymandered nightmares out there.  It could be argued that political competitiveness is lacking in many of our districts, but the desire for political competitiveness is in conflict with the desire by some to not use prior voting information in the drawing of districts. Even if you conclude that we do need reform, what should that reform look like?

From a practical perspective the shortest-splitline algorithm is too radical a departure from our current system for almost any politician to support and I’m not so sure it’s even a good idea.  I do think there is something to be said for creating minority dominated districts in an attempt to give that minority more of a voice at the national level.  I do think that from a purely logistical perspective county and city unity should be a factor for consideration.  The Iowa model seems like a good compromise between the practical and the political, but it’s not without problems.  

Toward the end of his comments Majority leader Pogemiller related a story about the 2001 redistricting in which a member pleaded with him “Please don’t take my mother out of my district.”  It sounds ridiculous, but these are the kinds of interests at play in this debate and I tend to agree that more than anything else incumbents want stability and this will make them afraid of reform.  It’s because of this that any push for reform needs to be well conceived and must not appear to be a partisan power grab, voters will reject it otherwise.

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