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The Case for Nonpartisan Redistricting

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The looming partisan battles over reapportionment and redistricting could make the 2010's ugly midterm debates look like child’s play. Redistricting won’t receive as much coverage because it will focus on a minority of states, but within those states, fierce intensity will rule. This is absolutely unavoidable given how reapportionment and redistricting work.

Reapportionment, the process of granting and taking away Congressional seats,  is less contentious because it is driven by census data. States either win or lose seats based on population changes since 2000. Twelve states should get increased seats with Texas gaining four and Florida gaining two. Ten will lose seats, with New York and Ohio losing two each. 

Redistricting will be much more divisive partly because all states do it. In the 38 states that will not lose or gain seats, there will be minimal need to design new Congressional or state legislative maps. Whether they gain or lose seats, the majority party will look for ways to shape districts to guarantee to enhance its control and reduce minority party influence. 

The principal impediment to the majority party’s plan is the Voting Rights Act. The VRA stipulates that redistricting may not dilute minority votes. What this means is unclear because of the apparent willingness of federal courts to substitute minority-influence districts for minority-majority districts. Because Democrats have been much more supportive of the VRA, almost all minorities elected from VRA districts have been Democrats. Thus, redistricting gives Latinos more reason to support the Democratic party and overall, this process results in strengthening the bond between Latinos and Democrats.

The partisan battles that have defined redistricting could be avoided if redistricting were taken out of the hands of the legislature and turned over to independent commissions whose decisions were beyond the control of a state’s partisan leaders.  If, on the other hand, as is often the case, commissions are constituted to replicate the political divisions in the state, their decisions will merely reproduce what the legislature would have done on its own. 

The benefits of non-partisan commissions are significant.  Above all, they eliminate the tyrannical imposition of majority rule that was perpetrated by Democrats in California in the 1990s and in Texas after its controversial second redistricting following the 2000 census in 2003. Party leaders oppose such commissions because their power is greatly diminished. 

Now that the public is so justifiably disgusted by politics as usual, perhaps it will be possible to persuade political leaders to agree to such commissions if they were designed based on a combination of partisan politics and population. Each party would get a proportion of seats based on the census population totals and the percentage of votes it received in the last presidential election. The independent commission would allocate each party the number of seats to which it is entitled and then settle disputes over district configuration to insure that the majority party does not exploits its status to design new districts at the expense of the minority party.  

This proposal does not address all the problems inherent in representational systems. It does nothing to increase electoral competitiveness or accountability, for example.  It would, however, likely be welcomed by the public because it would reduce political wrangling. It would also provide parties powerful incentives to mobilize voters since their Congressional and state legislative seats would be determined by the number of votes they receive.

Finally, it would be a way to reduce the political noise that is making us deaf.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.