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Why Republicans Should Get on the Redistricting Reform Bandwagon

A Commentary by Bill Pascoe

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Once every decade--in years that end in zero--true political junkies get to spend an entire year basking in the glow of the national campaign over redistricting. For them, it's like the Super Bowl, March Madness, the World Series, and the Daytona 500 all wrapped up in one, but spread out over dozens of key states. In anticipation of the constitutionally-mandated redistricting that takes place the following year, Republicans and Democrats go to war over key governors' mansions and targeted state legislative seats, working both offense and defense to shut out their opponents where possible, and grab a seat at the table where necessary. From command bunkers in Washington, DC and in the state capitals, campaign resources (money, manpower, and media) are directed in highly targeted fashion, all with a view to gaining an edge here or a foothold there.

Gaining an edge here or a foothold there can translate into winning or losing congressional seats for a decade. The ability to draw the lines bounding a state's congressional districts is the ability to influence the composition of that state's congressional delegation; and because states tend to do redistricting just once per decade (though most states have no law preventing more frequent redistricting), a new map doesn't just influence the next congressional elections, but the next five congressional elections.

Historically--because redistricting of both state legislative seats and congressional seats is handled at the state level, and because each state has its own laws governing its process (the simplest and most common of which is the passage of a bill through both houses of the legislature, followed by the governor's signature)--what actually emerges is not a national campaign contest, but about three dozen state-level battlefields.

But after looking at the record over the last 50 years' worth of redistricting-- a record that shows Democrats dominating the process in every redistricting that's taken place since John F. Kennedy was president--a Republican could be forgiven for asking: Is this a game we want to keep playing? Isn't there a better way?

Consider:

In the 1961 redistricting, Democrats controlled the line-drawing process outright in 21 states, with 220 congressional seats; Republicans, by contrast, controlled the line-drawing process outright in just 3 states, with 45 congressional seats. Consequently, Democrats were able to draw the lines controlling 175 seats more than the Republicans.

In the 1971 redistricting, Democrats controlled the line-drawing process outright in 17 states, with 146 seats; Republicans controlled the line-drawing process in just 7 states, with 85 seats. So Democrats were able to draw the lines controlling 61 seats more than the Republicans.

In the 1981 redistricting, Democrats controlled the line-drawing process in 19 states, with 194 seats; Republicans controlled the line-drawing process in just 3 states, with 41 seats. Thus, Democrats were able to draw the lines controlling 153 seats more than the Republicans.

In the 1991 redistricting, Democrats controlled the line-drawing process in 17 states, with 138 seats; Republicans, by contrast, controlled the line-drawing process in just 2 states, with just 5 seats. Consequently, Democrats were able to draw the lines controlling 133 more seats than the Republicans.

Is it any wonder Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from 1955-95?

But then, in 2001, Republicans--largely as a result of a strategy developed and implemented under the leadership of then-Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson-- had their best redistricting ever: By the time the dust settled, Republicans controlled the line-drawing process in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, for the first time in anyone's memory, and it made a huge difference.

Overall, in the 2001 redistricting, Democrats controlled the line-drawing process over just 11 states, with 130 seats, while Republicans controlled the line-drawing process over 9 states, with 104 seats. So Republicans emerged from the 2001 redistricting down by just 26 seats in the line-drawing game.

But go back and read that again: Republicans emerged from the 2001 redistricting--their best round of redistricting in the last half-century--still trailing the Democrats by 26 seats.

Note to Republicans: If every time you put on the shoulder pads and helmet you end up having your head handed to you, it's time to start thinking about playing basketball instead.

How to do that? Simple--move to a nonpartisan redistricting effort along the lines of the Iowa model.

Under an Iowa law that's been in effect for decades, a group of legislative staffers from the state's Legislative Service Bureau is sent off to a corner and given only minimal information from the Census. They are specifically NOT given the home addresses of legislators (so they can't and won't draw district lines that include or exclude specific legislators); neither are they given voting histories of individual voters, nor the voting tendencies of individual precincts.

They are under specific legal mandate to draw districts that are equal in population, contiguous, and compact, and that share, to the greatest extent possible, community. Additionally, the Iowa Constitution requires that they may not draw district lines that split counties into different congressional districts.

When they are finished with their drafting, their proposed map is put to a vote of each house of the legislature. Like the recommendations of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the maps are put to a vote on a straight up-or-down basis, with no amendments allowed.

If the map is approved by both houses, it goes to the governor for signature, and it becomes law; if the first map is rejected by either house, a second map is proposed; if the second map is rejected by either house, a third one is proposed. Only the third map is subject to amendment from the floor.

Since the law went into effect in time for Iowa's 1981 redistricting, it has worked to create congressional districts that meet the criteria--and, in the process, there's been added bonus: the districts have been competitive.

For example, take a look at the current map of Iowa's five congressional districts and you'll see--each of Iowa's 99 counties is wholly contained in one of the five congressional districts, without a single one split. Further, each of the five congressional districts is fairly drawn, and there are no Rorschach ink-blot characters on the map.

Moreover, the result of the Iowa model is that the districts are competitive--in the 2002 elections (the first elections under the new map), only one of the five contests was a blowout, while the rest were relatively close--one was decided by six points, one by eight, one by 12, and one by 14 points.

In a world where 90 percent of the congressional seats are gerrymandered so heavily that they are won by more than 10 percentage points, and 80 percent are won by more than 20 points, I'll happily take a remapping plan that yields four competitive seats out of five.

As the populace has become more and more disaffected from its political leaders in Washington, support for significant redistricting reform--specifically, ending the gerrymander--is beginning to show up in odd places... like the editorial board of The New York Times (which editorialized on November 11 in favor of significant reform) and the electorate of California (which, in 2008, passed a ballot initiative creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission to handle the state's legislative redistricting).

The GOP should get on the redistricting reform bandwagon. Rather than continuing to spend its resources engaging in micro-level political warfare at the state level--the kind of partisan wrangling that does so much to turn off voters--it should instead move decisively in favor of significant redistricting reform, and leave the Democrats as defenders of the status quo. In doing so, it will combine good policy with good politics, and return itself to its position as the party that truly cares about the people.

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