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Making Elections More Democratic

By Pete Shuler · June 14th, 2001 · Statehouse
Every 10 years, legislators in most states redraw the political map of America to reflect the population changes quantified in the new census.

The majority party in each state creates new federal and state congressional districts -- and almost always does so in a manner that gives their party the maximum electoral advantage. The resulting bizarrely shaped districts cram as many minority-party voters as possible into as few districts as possible, thus allowing the majority party to retain power by winning nearly all of the remaining seats.

This practice, known as gerrymandering, seems antithetical to the equality and fairness that is the ideological heart of our political process: One person, one vote. But ridding the electoral process of gerrymandering requires constitutional amendments and the support of politicians with a vested interest in keeping it.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this electoral finagling is that the remedies are simple, logical and, unlike campaign finance reform, free from entanglement with First Amendment issues.

The first and most obvious step is to completely exclude all politicians from the redistricting process. Objective, non-partisan groups or committees could easily replace inherently biased legislators. Where they exist, such arrangements create more equitable districting plans. In Iowa, the Legislative Services Bureau, a non-partisan group that provides legal and research support to the general assembly, devises several redistricting plans, one of which the legislature then approves.

In recent Iowa elections, the speaker of the House of Representatives ran against the House minority leader.

This high-stakes race would never have happened in a state where politicians control redistricting. In such states, district lines are almost always drawn so strong opponents to the majority party's powerful incumbents compete in a different district.

A second method of eliminating gerrymandering is to establish strict and objective rules for creating congressional districts. Such rules could require, among other criteria, that districts be compact, with no odd shapes or extensions reaching out to include or exclude certain voters. The various dimensions -- length, width, etc. -- of a compact district are not dramatically different from each other. A four-mile long, three-mile wide district is compact, while a 12-mile long, half-mile wide district is almost certainly a product of gerrymandering.

These boundaries should also, whenever possible, encompass entire towns, villages and other political subdivisions, instead of fragmenting these entities. Longstanding political boundaries provide yet another objective criteria for redistricting.

Finally, the most dramatic method of eradicating gerrymandering is to revamp the entire electoral system. In nearly all elections in the United States, the winning candidate represents all voters within the jurisdiction, no matter how narrow the margin of victory. This winner-take-all system, however, is only one electoral option.

Many other democratic countries, including most of Western Europe, employ proportional representation, an electoral system that nullifies gerrymandering and offers the added bonus of a purer, more complete form of representation.

Under proportional representation, several politicians represent one district. Each political party wins the number of seats for a district that is proportional to the percentage of votes that each party received. Under the most common method of proportional representation, if a given party receives 20 percent of the vote in a 10-member district, the top two names on that party's candidate list -- shown on the ballot under the party name (with independents listed as separate parties) -- serve as representatives.

Instead of one politician with one mindset pretending to represent the varied interests of the constituents, many politicians carry the diverse beliefs and interests of the district to Congress. If 20 percent of voters in a given district believe in the elimination of income taxes, they will receive the representation they deserve -- 20 percent.

By removing the winner-take-all jackpot of our system, proportional representation renders gerrymandering impotent.

This system is more in line with American political philosophies of democracy and representation than our current method. But the two parties that run this country are interested not in democracy and representation, but in keeping and gaining power.

Gerrymandering serves as a stark reminder of this hypocrisy, of the contrast between political theory and practice in America. Until Americans demand true democracy, that reminder will return every 10 years.



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