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A Bill to Shed Light on Redistricting

Rep. John Tanner (D-TN) and Rep. Michael Castle (R-DE) introduced the “Redistricting Transparency Act of 2010” this week. What is it, and why is it necessary? If passed, what would it fix?

  • Justin Levitt
  • Garima Malhotra
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.