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Why We Need Redistricting Reform

Republican control of the lower chamber could extend well past the 113th Congress, thanks in part to the once-a-decade process of redistricting.

  • Keesha Gaskins & Sundeep Iyer
November 8, 2012

On November 7, Americans woke up again to a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. And whether they like it or not, Americans should get used to this leadership. Republican control of the lower chamber could extend well past the 113th Congress, thanks in part to the once-a-decade process of redistricting.

What this means for federal lawmaking, we have yet to see. But understanding how the Republican party locked in their control of the House is instructive — especially as we reflect on the election, and as we consider reforms that allow voters to choose their leaders, instead of the other way around.

First, we need to look back to 2010. When Republicans won big in elections across the country that year — picking up 63 seats in Congress, six governorships and 675 state legislative seats previously held by Democrats. Their victories had a lasting impact. The GOP took control just at the moment that Congressional lines were about to be redrawn. Thanks to the 2010 midterms, Republicans had the power to draw the lines for nearly four times as many districts as Democrats.

The GOP took advantage of redistricting by shoring up vulnerable incumbents who might have otherwise lost re-election. The 2010 wave brought many new Republican faces to Congress, many of whom represented districts that leaned Democratic. For example, Rep. Lou Barletta (PA-11) was the first Republican elected to represent his Scranton and Wilkes-Barre-based district since 1980. Barletta’s new district gave President Obama about 10 percent less of the vote than his old one would have. On Tuesday, Barletta coasted to re-election. Other Republican freshmen, such as Rep. Renee Ellmers (NC-2) and Rep. Blake Farenthold (TX-27), saw similarly favorable changes to their districts and handily won re-election.

Republicans would have had trouble holding onto these districts before redistricting, and now they will control these districts in 2013. The long-term implications of this are important. Not only did redistricting make it easier for Republicans to keep control of Congress this election, but it also may have made it easier for them to keep control over the next decade.

Of course, Republicans weren’t the only ones who used redistricting to their advantage. Democrats were just as determined to tilt the political terrain. For example, they drew incumbent Republican Roscoe Bartlett in Maryland into a heavily Democratic district outside of Washington D.C.; Bartlett was easily defeated on Tuesday. In Illinois, due in large part to Democratic-controlled redistricting, there will be five fewer Republicans in the state’s Congressional delegation this January.

This kind of partisan manipulation of redistricting by both political parties is worrisome for our democracy. It takes elections out of the hands of voters and puts them in the hands of line-drawers and bureaucrats.

But the process does not always need to be conducted for partisan gain at voters’ expense. Recent reforms in some states have reduced the ability of partisans to manipulate the process.

California, for example, was one of five states to use an independent commission to draw its districts. There, the commission dismantled several incumbent-protecting gerrymanders. As a result, when the final votes are tallied, there could be as many as 14 new faces in California’s Congressional delegation this January — this in a state where just one incumbent member of Congress had lost re-election during the past decade.

Meanwhile, in Florida, responsibility for drawing new districts still lies with the legislature, where Republicans had a majority. But new criteria approved by ballot measure in 2010 expressly prohibited the legislature from drawing districts to “favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.” On Tuesday, Democrats may have picked up as many as four additional seats in the state. In abiding by the new redistricting criteria, Florida was the only state where new Congressional districts drawn by Republican legislators led Democrats to gain seats in 2012.

Unless partisans are constrained by clear criteria or are taken out of the line-drawing process entirely, they will use redistricting to reshape the political terrain to their advantage. It is still too early to know exactly what effects the reforms in states like Florida and California had, but these reforms suggest that redistricting need not always be a case of politicians picking their voters.

For this past election, redistricting may not have seemed all that consequential. Yet that belies the importance of the process in shaping what happens for the next decade. Some states have already made it harder for partisans to manipulate the political terrain to their advantage. But unless the rest of the country follows suit and moves to reform the way the lines are drawn, politicians and bureaucrats will keep on trying to prevent ordinary citizens from having their voices heard.