“We are in the business of rigging elections.” – Former State Sen. Mark McDaniel (R-North Carolina)
Warning: Before you read this article, know that the topic of redistricting can be extremely boring. Yet it is also one of the most important fundamentals to democracy in the United States and is happening right now at the local, state and federal level.
What is redistricting? Generally, every 10 years (when the results of the census are reported) governmental bodies redraw the lines of the districts that determine which person represents which geographic area. This is done from the city council and school board level all the way to U.S. Congress, and happens because, to put it very simply, people move and populations grow. If we didn’t redraw these lines, some representatives would end up representing very few people, while others would represent many more. That is not fair for either the representatives or the constituents living in those bigger areas.
Though necessary, the process has been used since the nation’s founding to favor one group over another.
As an example, let’s say you are a group of vegetarians who have been in power for a while (creating laws favoring the serving of hummus and lentils), but there is a growing meat eating community in your state located in a city center (interested in a more pro-steak policy). However, they are surrounded by a slightly larger population of vegetarians living in the suburbs. Two districts must split the area. So the vegetarians in power divide the district in half leaving a minority of meat eaters in each district, therefore decreasing the chance any of them will be elected. This process is called cracking.
Or, a group of dog owners in a state has traditionally had power and spent time and money on pro-dog public policy issues (fire hydrants, squeaky toys, Milk Bones, etc.). However there is a growing cat-owning population in one city, and they are much more concerned about their issues (laser pointers, scratching posts, catnip, and so on). This population is getting so big that it is impossible to crack them effectively. If there are three districts, however, the dog owners in power can still curb the cat lobby influence by drawing a circle around the cat owning population and limiting that area to only one likely pro-cat representative, leaving the other two districts representing a majority of dog-owners. This process is called packing.
Packing and cracking are both examples of gerrymandering, a term that comes from a district drawn in Massachusetts during the early 1800s by a Governor named Elbridge Gerry. In many cases, gerrymandering can create lines that look like something put on a refrigerator by a proud parent of a kindergartner.
In today’s political environment, gerrymandering is generally used to create advantages for a political party and protect incumbents. Computer technology has made professional demographers very good at using census information to predict the results of future elections using packing and cracking.
There are many reasons this can be bad for democracy. First off, it leads to a reduction in competitive elections. For instance, there are 435 representatives in Congress. In most years over 350 run in “safe” seats, meaning that only 20 percent of representatives face any sort of competition. This creates:
- Less participation in elections. (Why vote if you are already pretty sure who is going to get elected?)
- Less complete representation. (Fewer people turning out means party stalwarts who vote in primaries are more influential than the public at large.)
- Less accountability. (If representatives are assured of election, why bother listening to their constituents?)
- More partisanship. (There is no reason to moderate a vote if the only people you are trying to please are more likely on the extremes of your own party.)
Putting the power in the hands of citizen committees
Over the years, some bodies have tried to implement changes to the redistricting practices so that more representative districts are drawn. This generally puts more power for drawing lines in to the hands of citizen committees instead of the bodies that stand to benefit from the redistricting process.
They vary from simple advisory boards to a recent California decision that completely striped the Legislature of redistricting power and placed it in the hands of a commission of citizen volunteers picked through an exhaustive process, with their recently released initial map drawing many incumbents out of their districts.
In New Mexico, the City of Albuquerque has had a redistricting committee for the last 30 years, while Las Cruces and Doña Ana County are currently experimenting with similar advisory boards. These committees educate themselves and the public on how redistricting processes work, get input from interested citizens on concerns regarding community changes, and make recommendations to their respective boards on how new districts should be drawn to accurately and fairly represent their populations.
The mayors, councilors, and commissioners from these areas should be congratulated for delegating responsibility for redistricting to more neutral boards that do not stand to directly benefit from the process.
When Henry Ford originally sold the Model T, he once said that his customers could “have any color they want as long as it’s black.” While that may work for a private company, it is terrible model for representative government. Unless voters have real, actual options to consider in an election, public officials become less accountable and our democracy is greatly weakened. For that reason, voters of all political stripes and across all parties should come together and demand that it stop.
Bill McCamley is a former Doña Ana County commissioner, is currently employed with ROJO Apparel (a Las Cruces clothing company), and was recently the chair of the Las Cruces Ad-Hoc Citizens Redistricting Committee.