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Inherent inequalities with congressional redistricting

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Redistricting for congressional and state legislative seats is approaching. Following the decennial 2010 US Census, congressional districts must be reformed in each state to better account for changes in population, demographics and urbanization. Historically, the task of redistricting was left to each state’s legislator. Highly influenced by party politics and susceptible to gerrymandering, the current system undoubtedly has numerous flaws. Minorities have been historically underrepresented in the US political system and underrepresentation minority congressional members is even more striking. The result is a system where the winners of each state’s election make the rules on how the redistricting game is played.


A new experimental method of nonpartisan congressional redistricting in Arizona and California has undeniable merits for attempting to reform an inherently inequitable system. In an attempt to reform the system, the new committees are prohibited from taking into account partisanship when drawing boundaries. Nonpartisan committees are chosen differently in each state, but by definition have no stated political goals. However, the committees do not address a critical problem on how to best represent minorities in the United States. The nonpartisan committee system of redistricting fundamentally disadvantages and dilutes the votes of those minorities who are already underrepresented in American politics by abolishing “majority-minority” districts, intentionally gerrymandered districts to group racial minorities as the majority in areas where their votes may otherwise be irrelevant. While the nonpartisan redistricting system appears to be an attractive solution to the corruptive influence that has lead to our inequitable congressional districting, it would result in less demographically representative congress.
At first glance, the new nonpartisan system seems to solve the ills associated with the old redistricting method. Newly formed nonpartisan redistricting committees provide much needed hints at congressional reform; isolated from party politics, the nonpartisan commissions are composed of appointed citizens with no formal Democratic or Republican agenda. Because the new district lines are drawn by those without a vested interest in party politics, the new nonpartisan committee would, in theory, create new “fairer” districts. Yet notions of more fair or more competitive elections preempts a discussion of what qualifies as fair.
The new system, which cannot favor or discriminate against incumbents, candidates or entire political parties, would abolish most "safe districts", where the electorate leans heavily Republican or Democratic. Creation of districts solely on the basis of population would make more competitive elections by disbanding the racially engineered districts that have facilitated one-sided political victories of the past. In this gridlocked anti-incumbent political climate, the notion of more competitive elections that could oust longtime congresspeople may be popular. Yet those replacing our current congressional members in the upcoming 113th House would likely be much less representative than those in the 112th; in a two candidate election where the victor wins 51% of the vote, 49% of that district’s constituency will be left discontented with the result and ensuing policies.
The current system clearly falls short of the ideal of replicating American demographics in Washington. Through the advent and implementation of districting with “majority-minority” districts, we have seen a more equal and demographically representative government. Majority-minority districts have been historically drawn to create districts where racial minorities comprise the majority of that district’s constituency in order to better elect demographically representative candidates to Congress. Many of the residents of majority-minority districts live in areas where districts drawn on geographic basis would dilute or nullify their effect on elections. In this way, the nonpartisan committee system would erase the attempts to better represent the American people through race. With more competitive elections in each district and district lines that are drawn on the basis of population and geography, minorities across the nation will be slowly inched further out of the democratic process by the pluralities in their new districts that outnumber and surround them.
The nonpartisan committee system would only serve to create a new system of inequality to replace the old one. The new system posits to fix the system but only serves to replace redistricting based on one form of inequality with another. The current system bans exclusive considerations of race, while a nonpartisan system would only shift the oppression of minorities in congressional redistricting by banning considerations of political ideology.
Redistricting may never be perfect. Although  we have progressed toward equality as a nation, minorities in the US congress are still notoriously underrepresented. Taken to represent the entirety of the United States’ population, the 435 members of the House are overwhelmingly white males. In 2010, 16% of the US population was composed of Hispanic Americans, however they were represented by only 27 congresspeople, roughly 6% of congressional positions. Two Western states have taken on a valiant experimental effort to adjust our democracy to be more representative with the hopes of combating partisan influence. Yet, until these committee systems work out all of their kinks and minorities are represented proportionately in Washington, current methods of redistricting, including majority-minority districts, are still preferable to any alternative. Fairness, when applied to congressional redistricting, is difficult to define and shouldn’t be constrained to issues of race. In the absence of a new system that allows for greater representation on the basis of race, class, sexual orientation, and so on, our current system is best among an array of imperfect options.