(By Mark McCutchan)
The 2011 budget will likely be settled this week, and the looming 2012 budget struggle is on its way into the public spotlight. There is a little discussed fight coming, however, that the Republicans would love to keep quiet – redistricting and reapportionment. Sounds boring, right? Maybe so, but the results of this legislative process could decide which party wins most battles for at least the next 10 years!
Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires redistricting of the states every 10 years, based on the results of the last U.S. Census, so that each district has approximately the same number of citizens. Each district elects one representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. The Constitution does not proscribe how the redistricting process shall be performed.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires preclearance of these districts in the jurisdictions of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, due to their history of racial discrimination towards African-Americans and Native Americans in these states.
The Current Situation
Some states have the state’s legislature in charge of drawing the district lines, while others hold a nonpartisan body responsible. When the state legislature is in charge, the process can be quite contentious if the Republican-Democrat balance of power is close, but that is not the case currently – 26 states have Republican controlled state legislatures, 15 Democratic controlled ones, 8 states have the control split, and Nebraska is officially nonpartisan.
Because I’m more familiar with Ohio’s politics, I’m going to use the state as an example of redistricting action. In the 2010 elections, Ohio Republicans gained firm control of the legislature (23-10 in the State Senate, 59-40 in the State House) as well as a Republican Governor Kasich. Ohio’s slow-growing population will likely lead to a loss of two U.S. congressional districts in the state, and you can bet the Republicans make sure the lost seats will be Democratic ones. Similarly, the Democratic Party was devastated in Texas during the controversial 2003 redistricting, which changed the state legislature from Democratic Party control (17-15) based on the 2000 census, to Republican Party control (21-11) in 2004.
From Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch:
If history is a guide, the [Republican] party will gerrymander districts to give it the highest possibility of retaining their legislative majorities for the rest of this decade.
The Dispatch has learned that Democrats, backed by an unidentified $3 million commitment of support, had planned to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November aimed at depoliticizing the line-drawing process. But that plan has been shelved because of concern that a redistricting amendment “would dilute the effort to overturn Senate Bill 5,” according to a Democratic source who asked not to be named.
In other words, Ohio Republicans have used Senate Bill 5 for three purposes (and similar bills are being used across the country):
1) To lower state labor expenses (without attacking public unions, according to the GOP!)
2) To reduce public unions’ finances to limit their ability to help state Democrats.
3) To weaken the Democrats directly by attacking at two points at once. Should the party protect a powerful wing (the unions), or protect their future viability through depoliticizing the redistricting process? It may be too difficult for the Democrats to succeed at both.
To save their own jobs, some legislators have even hired lobbyists to influence the redistricting process, as detailed in this New York Times story.
In addition to state districts being decided this year, there is also apportionment, which means that different district lines will be drawn for the purpose of selecting state house and state senate representatives. The state legislatures are in charge of this process as well, and in Ohio, the Apportionment Board is composed of the governor, the state auditor, the Ohio secretary of state, one Republican Assembly member, and one Democratic Assembly member. Again, Democrats are outnumbered 4-1, and will have little pull in a very political process. Lines will likely be drawn to maximize the number of Republican-safe districts and minimize the Democrat-safe districts.
Hope For Fairness in Redistricting
There have been recent efforts to reform redistricting; Proposition 20 won overwhelming approval in California, which gave a citizen commission responsibility for Congressional and state legislative redistricting. Florida passed two Fair Districts initiatives requiring lawmakers to follow certain rules promoting fairness to the voters during the redistricting process. This Huffington Post article explains that the success of these efforts was due to their limited scope, and their media and financial backing. Keeping the public’s attention on the issue of fair redistricting costs money, and having progressive benefactors was key to passage of these reforms.
Here’s a quote from a certain Illinois senator on his take of the issue:
Of course, there are technical fixes to our democracy that might relieve some of this pressure on politicians, structural changes that would strengthen the link between voters and their representatives. Nonpartisan districting, same-day registration, and weekend elections would all increase the competitiveness of races and might spur more participation from the electorate – and the more the electorate is paying attention, the more integrity is rewarded. Public financing of campaigns or free television and radio time could drastically reduce the constant scrounging for money and the influence of special interests. … But none of these changes can happen of their own accord. Each would require a change in attitude among those in power. Each would demand that individual politicians challenge the existing order; loosen their hold on incumbency; fight with their friends as well as their enemies on behalf of abstract ideas in which the public appears to have little interest. Each would require from men and women a willingness to risk what they already have.
- Barack Obama, Audacity of Hope
There are eight state legislatures that are under Democratic Party control currently, and it helps those Democratic state parties to keep the redistricting process as is – political. However, it is in the long-term best interest of both major parties to see that redistricting is performed in all states by a nonpartisan committee, using the following criteria:
- Create compact districts along county lines when possible
- Keep communities within a single district
- Avoid the drawing of boundaries for purposes of partisan advantage or incumbent protection
- Ensure representational fairness
We need to move quickly to ensure that the progressive movement succeeds as part of a viable Democratic Party. Redistricting needs to be completed before the first primary in March 2012, and it is important that all citizens can take part in the process, rather than leaving it in the hands of the (mostly Republican) legislators across America. Here is how you can help:
1) Play the Redistricting Game to try your hand at redistricting, and see how drawing lines can change lives. Dave’s Redistricting App lets you use real 2010 Census data to redistrict your own state.
2) Join the efforts of Americans for Redistricting Reform. It’s a national organization of groups from across the political spectrum that recognizes the critical need to reform our nation’s redistricting process. Their website has news on groups in every state that are working towards fair redistricting.
3) Write to President Obama. He has not said anything about redistricting since elected, but his powerful national megaphone could focus the public’s attention if he would publicly identify redistricting reform as a vital part of maintaining a strong democracy.
4) Write to your state Democratic Party and your local newspapers to explain why nonpartisan redistricting is important to the viability of the Democratic Party. Here are links for submitting letters to the editor for national papers, and to newspapers in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin.
Thanks goes out to Ohio State Representative Debbie Phillips and Caucus Research Director Chris Glassburn for their help in deciphering the redistricting and reapportionment process.