The Republicans won a clear majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives this past election (234 to the Democrats 201), signifying that more voters cast ballots for Republican congressional candidates than Democrats, right? Not exactly. Crunch the numbers from across the country and, as the Washington Post points out, the Democratic candidates actually finished about 500,000 votes ahead. If the House of Representatives were actually representational, the Democrats would have a slight advantage.
So what’s to blame for the discrepancy? Redistricting, the redrawing of political barriers. On the surface, redistricting is a boring topic, but it is inevitably a crucial game that politicians use to leverage power.
Every ten years, after a Census report comes out, new Congressional lines need to be determined to account for changes in population. Since each Congressional district in a state must have approximately the same amount of people, this means tinkering with the boundaries. The stated objective of these alterations is to make things fairer by ensuring equal representation. However, in actuality, the results are quite unfair, as the way these lines are drawn generally predetermines the outcome of the elections.
Some say you can’t trust politicians, but you definitely can’t trust politicians to regulate their own districting lines. When you let legislators draw the lines themselves, two things tend to happen:
- The party in power redistricts in such a way to maintain its lead or perhaps even gain a seat or two.
- Legislators of both parties work together to ensure that their seats remain safe. It’s amazing how well politicians can form a bipartisan alliance when it is their own jobs on the line.
It is no wonder that the incumbency rate is so high in Congress. When incumbents get to help determine which of their state’s residents are permitted to vote for them, they stand a better than great chance of being reelected.
Obviously, different areas of a state will have different political leanings; on the whole, urban areas tend to be liberal while suburban areas are more conservative. Even when done properly, redistricting would not make every House seat competitive. However, the problem arises when the lines are intentionally rigged, a process known as gerrymandering.
For a great example of gerrymandering, consider the infamous swing state Ohio, which just went blue for Obama. Approximately half of the voters there are Democrats, yet 12 of the 16 Congressional seats went to Republicans. The explanation lies in how the lines were drawn. State Republicans manufactured boundaries that put overwhelming Democratic strongholds in a few districts, in a sense automatically forfeiting those seats. The move was strategic, however, because by tying up large Democrat populations in just a few places, they were able to spread out the Republican vote, giving them slight majorities in the other districts, and therefore win a disproportionate amount of seats.
Just look at the maps on Slate. Do Ohio and Pennsylvania’s districts seem drawn fairly? Rather than being compact, they jut out all over the place like some kid’s abstract artwork. They’d almost appear nonsensical if weren’t for the fact that a lot of thought and strategy was put into where the lines would go to maximize the ability to manipulate the election.
For the record, when Democrats are in power, they are also often guilty of gerrymandering, although the 2012 election would indicate that the Republicans have been more successful with the tactic as of late.
What is the solution for this injustice? Some states (California, Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, Hawaii, and Idaho) have introduced non-partisan or bipartisan committees of unelected officials to tackle the issue of redistricting. These committees are tasked with re-mapping the boundaries without considering the voter demographics of the residents.
There are people who argue that this is a bad plan because the people who draw the lines should be held accountable to the voters. But that’s the whole point of gerrymandering – to ensure electoral victories before the votes are cast, so how would they wind up being held accountable anyway? Besides, voters rarely have a complete picture of all the issues, and it is not likely that a subject as unglamorous as unfair redistricting would sway many people’s votes.
Perhaps the solution is to select some apolitical idiot off the street to do the mapping. Or maybe make it some middle school students’ math and geography project to divide the state into equal and reasonable population sections without strong partisan feelings. Either way, something as important and prone to tampering as redistricting cannot be left up to the politicians to decide.
If you find redistricting fascinating or just want to understand it better, try your hand at The ReDistricting Game. This free USC Annenberg Center computer simulation tasks players with drawing new districts in a state while facing various political pressures to rig the outcome.
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