A Bill to Shed Light on Redistricting

March 25, 2010

As Americans, we like to think that voters choose their politicians — but in reality, through the redistricting process, politicians mostly choose their voters. This week, Rep. John Tanner (D-TN) and Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE) introduced powerful legislation that tries to return more of a voice to the voters themselves. This bill, appropriately named the “Redistricting Transparency Act of 2010,” opens Congressional redistricting to allow for meaningful public access, input, and feedback.  It’s the first necessary step to holding our representatives accountable for an act ostensibly undertaken on our behalf.

Soon after the 2010 Census, the district lines used to decide which voters elect which members of Congress will be redrawn, block by block. As we’ve recently discussed, most Congressional districts are drawn by state legislators, who may seek to please — or hope to become — their Congressional colleagues. And when the lines are drawn in back rooms far from public view, it’s too easy to conflate personal or partisan interest with public interest. By the time the plans are made available to the public, the deals are done and the decisions are made. There is little opportunity for the public to access the pertinent data and no chance to comment on the draft plans. At no time are legislators asked to explain or justify the lines they draw.

This turns the representative process upside down. With no meaningful public input or accountability, legislators develop the bounds by which their friends are elected.  District lines are drawn to protect incumbents from effective challenge and promote a political party’s fortunes. This helps to create a body of legislators that is not as responsive to their constituents’ concerns as it should be, and electoral districts that divide and weaken real communities. 

The Redistricting Transparency Act of 2010 offers a basic federal fix to this federal problem. Among other things, the Act requires each state to create a comprehensive website that allows the public to monitor and comment on the redistricting process and the publication of the data that feeds it. It also requires each state to share its proposed Congressional redistricting plan before that plan is adopted, and to solicit public comment on the plan. A chance to review and comment on the legislation driving politics for a decade! It is alarming that such a fundamental step seems so novel.

This legislation would make legislators more accountable for their decisions, which is something we’ve supported for a long time. The more transparent the redistricting process, the less opportunity there will be to use line-drawing powers to serve narrow personal interests. We applaud Representatives Tanner and Castle for advancing this cause. With bipartisan support and the public’s interest in mind, this bill deserves the wind at its back.