Author: McHenry Lee, Johns Hopkins University _______________________________________________________________________________________
In a year where so many incumbents lost in the midterm elections and the approval rating of Congress as a whole stood at a mere 19%, you would think voters would choose to oust many of their own congressmen. However this wasn’t the case. Last Tuesday, the American people once again overwhelmingly re-elected their incumbent representatives and the makeup of the house barely changed at all. How can this be, especially considering the historic unpopularity of Congress at the moment? This paradox seems to defy all logic, but it is actually explained by a systemic problem in the American democratic system- congressional redistricting and the loss of competitive balance between the parties in many states.
Every ten years the federal government conducts the census in order to determine who is living where and if the population of any area has changed enough to warrant shifting proportional representation. According to the final results, states are allocated a certain number of seats in the House of Representatives based on either a growth or decline in population. Now after this is done, the state legislatures in every state are given the task of redrawing the boundaries of their congressional districts in order to account for any changes in population. In states where Republicans and Democrats share control of the legislature, this isn’t an issue as the competitive balance remains intact as both groups cancel out each other’s influence. However in states where one party controls the legislature, this competitive balance is mostly gone.
If one of the two parties has a sizeable and historic control of the legislature, they are then able to draw the map with the intent of maximizing the number of Congressional seats for themselves as well as protecting any incumbent representatives from any tough re-election challenge. They do this by packing as many voters of the minority party into as few districts as possible as well as spreading out their own voters into as many districts as they can. This maximizes the number of seats that a party can control, while also minimizing the damage that a minority party can do in any election. Since each district is packed with a certain type of voter, very few elections are classified as competitive. This allows incumbents to continuously win re-election even though their approval ratings might not be very high. This process is better known as gerrymandering and it is partly responsible for only 77 of 435 elections in 2014 actually being classified as competitive.
Take for example the 6th district of Maryland. After the 2010 census, state Democrats saw an opportunity to oust longtime Republican representative Roscoe Bartlett from his seat. Prior to the 2010 census, the 6th district was comprised mostly of the staunchly conservative western parts of the state, which had long been a Republican bastion for decades. However, the Democratic legislature redrew the map to include some of the liberal DC suburbs in order to include Democratic voters in the district. They also shifted some of the northeastern parts of the district, which were conservative, into the 1st district represented by Republican Andy Harris. This allowed democrats to minimize the threat of republican voters by packing as many of them as possible into the first district, while also nullifying any conservatives who were still left in the 6th by including more liberal voters. The results were telling. Just two years after he received a comfortable 61% of the vote in 2010, Bartlett was soundly defeated by a Democrat who himself got 59% of the vote. This process also eliminated any competitiveness in every Maryland Congressional race. The historically competitive 1st District was suddenly made into a Republican stronghold with the inclusion of conservative voters formerly in the 6th, while the 6th district itself changed entirely and now is a safe seat for Democrats for years to come.
Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t just a problem with the Democrats in Maryland. This is largely a national problem that is perpetrated by both parties when one gets too much power at the local level. Republican legislatures are just as guilty as their Democratic counterparts. Take Florida for example. For years the Republican controlled legislature gerrymandered districts to their own benefit. However, the state court system decided to intervene in one of these cases. Specifically, a Florida judge ruled that Republican drawn districts were constitutionally illegal because they attempted pack as many Hispanic voters into two districts, also known as majority minority districts. This restricted minority voters of their guaranteed right for representation. The judge then ordered the legislature to re-draw the maps based on population and not voting habits or race.
This approach represents one successful way to address this problem. Allow the court system, which is designed to be free of political influence, to call out gerrymandering when they see it and compel states to redraw better and more competitive maps. However this isn’t always viable considering that many judicial appointments are made with political intentions in mind. Therefore other solutions must be looked at, and one such answer might come from Ohio.
The Buckeye state is another state that has been plagued by gerrymandering from a partisan Republican state legislature for years. In order to address this problem, the state has enacted a law saying that if a congressional district map is deemed too advantageous for one party, the public can vote on it in a referendum. Although no district map has yet to face a vote, Republicans have backed off gerrymandering because they are scared to be challenged in a public referendum. The state has even considering going further by creating an independent council made up of equal number of Republicans and Democrats that would draw maps themselves. This council would remain bi-partisan because it would require at least one vote from both parties’ representatives in order to approve a map.
These two solutions represent a clear alternative to the failed system that is currently in place in many states. It allows for minority parties to have input in creating maps and would for the most part prevent any gerrymandered districts that reduce competitiveness in congressional races. It would also protect African American and Hispanic voters from being grouped together in majority minority districts, which restrict their say in elections. No matter how the problem is addressed, there is no denying that something has to be done. The American democratic system was designed on the principle of free and fair elections. Gerrymandering and competitive imbalance pose a clear threat to the notion of free and transparent representative democracy by ensuring that politicians don’t face realistic electoral challenges that hold them accountable to their constituents.