Mar 8, 2014
Redrawing the Political Map
Posted on Dec 11, 2008
“I’m the majority leader, and I want more seats,” former U.S. House Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay famously declared in 2003. DeLay got his seats—six more—by remapping Texas in the boldest gerrymander of modern American history.
Now, The Hammer’s legacy is in jeopardy. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger successfully led the charge to pass California’s Proposition 11, which limits the kind of partisan gerrymandering that DeLay, and his Democratic counterparts, used to influence elections around America for decades.
In the past, California has been a national trailblazer when it has enacted broadly felt sentiments. Proposition 13 is the most famous such example, that being the property tax cap of 1978 that set off an anti-tax revolution across the country. Not every California proposition becomes a national model, but “the redistricting law in California is interesting,” says attorney and redistricting expert Sam Hirsh, “because it’s such a big and often trendsetting state.” He would know. A former campaign manager and Capitol Hill aide, Hirsh represented the Democratic Party’s national redistricting project in 2000, and argued before the Supreme Court against DeLay’s Texas map.
Gerrymandering is the process of drawing electoral districts so that one political party can maximize its number of seats in a given legislature. Typically, this creative cartography takes place in each state after the decennial census. Both congressional and state legislative districts are redrawn at those times.
The party in control of a legislature typically takes advantage of map-making. For example, a Democratic legislature will draw districts that spread out Republican voters, so that each district has more Democrats than Republicans. This doesn’t work for every district in a state, so the map-makers, in order to ensure a Democratic majority, end up settling for many districts that are safely Democratic and a few that are safely Republican.
That abstract problem became a jolting reality this week in the state capital of Sacramento. “Without immediate action, our state is headed for a fiscal disaster,” Schwarzenegger told reporters. The Governator is not lying: Health care providers who rely on state payments have almost gone out of business recently because the state’s budget was so late California nearly had to stop paying bills. Gerrymandering is at the heart of the problem: Far left and far right legislators can’t compromise on the ideological hot buttons of raising taxes or cutting spending, so the state can’t plug its massive budget hole.
Around the nation, state leaders are watching California’s hyper-gerrymandered Legislature flail. If the Legislature functions much better once it is redistricted, California will exemplify a remarkable success story for nonpartisan districting. To be sure, a handful of states already have nonpartisan districts, but California’s national spotlight, and its dire situation, may make it the trendsetter.
So what would happen? If California does blaze a trail and redistricting catches on, how would a fairly districted America look? “No one has made that map,” admits Gerry Hebert, executive director of Americans for Redistricting Reform. Hebert was an attorney for the Democratic Party of Texas during DeLay’s 2003 redistricting maneuvers.
No one knows for sure what would happen if, for example, America had 400 competitive congressional elections in a single election cycle. A few experts even argue that nonpartisan redistricting wouldn’t produce many more competitive elections. For example, Alan Abramowitz of Emory University argues that gerrymandering doesn’t make a big difference. Abramowitz asserts that the biggest decreases in electoral competition happen between redistricting cycles, largely because of complex demographic shifts.
It is almost certain, though, that comprehensive nonpartisan redistricting would lead to major changes in the partisan makeups of some states’ congressional delegations and legislatures. DeLay’s heavily gerrymandered Texas, for example, would see a dramatic change. Hebert points to Florida as another state where a nonpartisan map would yield a big partisan swing. The Sunshine State is politically moderate, but Republican gerrymanders have led to two-thirds control of the Legislature. Undoing that gerrymander would mean a significant partisan rebalancing. Examples like Texas, Florida and California suggest that even a few states ending gerrymandering would make a meaningful difference in the makeup of Congress and state governments. The end of gerrymandering could also affect legislators even if it didn’t replace them: Hard-core partisans are often pushed toward the center by competitive elections, even if they win.
With California leading the way, there are myriad reasons to foresee state-level success against gerrymandering in the coming years. Hebert points to states with an initiative process, “because self-interested legislators aren’t likely to give up power.” Florida and Ohio, like California, have the initiative process. A poorly structured ballot initiative for redistricting failed in Ohio, and a similar effort recently failed in Florida as well. But Florida political operatives may try again to pass a redistricting initiative in 2010. Moreover, operatives who run anti-gerrymandering ballot initiatives learn from each effort: “The California efforts succeeded because they included interest groups like minorities groups concerned about losing legislative representation,” says Hebert. He expects future efforts to replicate the tactic.
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