Yipes! Redistricting returns

Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the Western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy and co-authors of Whose Vote Counts?

Voters, beware. Redistricting is back. Every 10 years it revisits us like a biblical plague. Current shenanigans show just why the nation’s renewed civic pride won’t bring many disenchanted Americans back to the polls.

In the wake of the census, all legislative districts must be redrawn to protect one person, one vote. In California, that means each U.S. House district must have some 639,000 residents.

Whoever controls line-drawing has near God-like powers over the destinies of parties and individual careers. With increasingly powerful technology, they “pack” as many opponents into as few districts as possible or “crack” a base of opposition voters into different districts.

In some states one party has stuck it to the other—just ask Republicans mugged in Georgia and Maryland, and Democrats roughed up in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

But the more disturbing trend is for both parties to conspire against their real enemy: the voters. This redistricting cycle has raised “incumbent protection” to a whole new level.

Take California. Democrats decided to cement their advantage, but incumbents took no chances. Loretta Sanchez told reporters that she and most of her Democratic U.S. House colleagues each forked over $20,000 to Michael Berman, the powerful consultant charged with crafting the Democrats’ plan.

It was classic “protection money.” Sanchez stated, “$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million every election. If my colleagues are smart, they’ll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in.”

Vociferous opponents of past Democratic plans, Republicans this time were largely mute. Why? Their pliant incumbents also were bought off with safe seats.

Incumbent protection has been the norm in state after state. The Wall Street Journal estimated that as few as 30 of next year’s 435 U.S. House elections will be competitive. Already fewer than one in 10 House seats were won by competitive margins in 1998 and 2000.

The ones hurt by such back-room deals are the voters. For most, their only real choice in the next decade will be to ratify the one-party choice handed out in redistricting no matter what changes are made in campaign financing and term limits. Expect more of the same until we reform redistricting or turn to more innovative voting methods like proportional representation.

There once was a time when voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But that’s changed. Now, the representatives pick us first. In the wake of the 2000 election debacle, this only further undermines confidence in our shaky political system.