End Gerrymandering Now

On November 6, Virginia's presidential vote went to the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, by about 4 percentage points.  The Senate seat went to the Democratic candidate, Tim Kaine, by almost 6 percent.  At the same time, in the eleven congressional races, all of the incumbents won-eight Republicans and three Democrats.  

Does that mean that huge numbers of Virginians were splitting their votes?  Not really.  Nearly six percent more Virginians voted for Democrats in the races for the House of Representatives than voted for Republicans.

How can it be that with less than half of the votes the Republicans won more than two-thirds of the House seats?

A big part of the answer can be given in one word:  gerrymandering.  That's the process by which politicians and political parties draw district boundaries in order to achieve the results that they want.

Those boundaries are redrawn every ten years, after each Census, by state legislatures.  The election of 2010 was a huge win for the Republicans in the states, as well as nationally. In most of the nation, redistricting was tilted to help elect Republicans.

And it worked.  What happened in the Virginia congressional races happened nationally as well.  The Republicans will retain a sizeable majority in the House of Representatives - 233 to 195 (with seven still in doubt)-even though nationwide, Democratic candidates received a half million more votes than their Republican opponents. (Republicans claim that they won some sort of "mandate" by winning a majority of seats in the House, but you can have no mandate if a majority of the people voted against you.)
And yet gerrymandering is not a partisan issue.  Politicians of America's major parties have been doing this for two centuries, Democrats as well as Republicans. Ultimately, gerrymandering is not so much about one political party doing wrong to the other, but about the political class doing wrong to the American people.

Politicians gerrymander in order to gain more power.  Power is a zero-sum game, meaning that one player can gain only if another loses.  The power that the politicians and parties gain is power that the people lose.

People lose power because districts are made non-competitive. As has been said before, elected officials determine their voters rather than vice-versa. The result is less choice for the people, and often politicians who stay in office for decades.

It's time to put an end to gerrymandering.  

In the 21st century, it would be easy to take the politics out of redistricting.  A computer using one algorithm for each of the states could crank out a set of boundaries that plays no favorites. (Begin in a specified corner for each state - e.g. the southwest-and proceed precinct by precinct by set rules until the necessary numbers of people are contained and then draw the boundary, and proceed to draw the next.)

The power taken from the political class would be returned to the people, for whom our whole system of government was established.

The House was the part of government that our founders wanted to be most responsive to the people.  That's why everyone in the House of Representatives must go back to the people every two years.  And yet the House is the one part of our national system where power can be stolen from the people by gerrymandering. You can't gerrymander a Senate seat, because the Senate is statewide and there's no redistricting to do.  You can't gerrymander the presidential race, because that's nationwide, and governed by electoral votes cast state-by-state.

But the congressional districts get redrawn every ten years, and that creates a vulnerability in our democracy.

It's time to close off that opening for corruption.  Let's do it now when no one knows who will benefit and who will lose from having an honest system in 2021, when it's time to redistrict again.

Although we can't predict now whether this improvement in our democracy will benefit Democrats or Republicans, we do know that it will benefit the people of the United States.

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Andy Schmookler, formerly a candidate for Congress, is the author of, among other books, the award-winning The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.  He lives in Shenandoah County, Virginia.

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