reform: the wonkishness of the term alone causes some folks to
fall asleep - as it apparently did to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
who reportedly face-planted on her desk for 15 minutes during
a Supreme Court hearing last week on the constitutionality of
Tom DeLay's 2003 district-packing plan.
But the fact
that the fight over redistricting reform has again made it to
the Supreme Court indicates the vital importance of this policy
debate. And now, with the confluence of a Supreme Court case,
influence peddling scandals, a timely new Senate sponsor of a
bipartisan congressional redistricting bill, and grassroots movements
underway in 15 states, there is new momentum behind this effort.
action would do more to heal the artificial polarization of Americans
is the primary tool that professional partisans use to rig the
system to their benefit. By dividing state's electoral boundaries
into safe seats, they enable the incumbency-protection racket
that has resulted in a 98% re-election rate.
segregation-by-political-affiliation effectively ends competitive
general elections, the only real contests occur in partisan primaries.
This forces the power in our politics to the margins - after all,
in a 7% turnout primary, 3.6% of the electorate makes a majority
- helping to explain the disproportionate influence of ideological
activists and accounts for the institutional drift of Congress
away from its historic balance of power in the center.
follows the lines of physics - every action creates an equal and
opposite reaction - it should come as no surprise that redistricting
has been increasingly used as a weapon by both parties. Some liberals
conveniently forget that it was Democrats who began playing the
gerrymandering game in the 1980s when faced with the realignment
of the South. Desperate to hold on to power, they began drawing
contorted majority-minority districts in the name of civil rights.
This created the Democratic safe seats they desired, but it also
reduced the demographic and political balance in the remaining
districts, angering Republicans while increasing their own regional
years, Republicans have been getting revenge with redistricting
efforts that stack the deck in their favor. The most notorious
of these landed them in the Supreme Court last week.
Of the seven
incumbents who lost their congressional seats in 2004, four were
Democrats from Texas. This was by design. In 2003, House Majority
Leader Tom Delay traveled down to the Texas State Capital to oversee
a redistricting project. In the normal course of events, redistricting
occurs every ten years, after the census. But the man proudly
nicknamed "The Hammer" wanted to leave nothing to chance
leading up to a pivotal presidential election year.
and attitudes of the commission were made clear in an e-mail by
Texas Republican congressional aide Joby Fortson (reported by
The New Yorker) in which he explained the fate of a district
represented by the senior Democrat in the state, Martin Frost,
writing "Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.... His district disappeared."
This cannot be what the founding fathers had in mind.
Now the case
has wound its way up to the Supreme Court, where the Reagan-appointed
centrist swing vote of Anthony Kennedy may prove to be the deciding
factor. But in the intervening months before a decision is handed
down, the Jack Abramoff scandal has some Washington insiders reconsidering
their wily ways.
Just in time,
the "Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act"
introduced by Representative John Tanner, a Democrat of Tennessee,
gained an influential new ally last week, when Senator Tim Johnson,
a Democrat of South Dakota, agreed to introduce identical legislation
in the Senate.
which has 45 co-sponsors in the House - including Republican Congressmen
Phil Gingrey of Georgia and Zach Wamp of Tennessee - would ban
mid-decade redistricting and have each state's electoral lines
decided by an bipartisan, independent commission. "We need
to clean up the process," Senator Johnson explained in a
press release. "Redistricting should not be done to benefit
either political party."
At a time
when politicians jump at the chance to label themselves reformers,
it may come as a surprise to find that the Democrat from South
Dakota is the lonely Senate endorsee to date. The dirty little
secret, of course, is that elected politicians like the redistricting
system rigged as it is - after all, it worked for them. Why should
they level the playing field to help a potential challenger?
voters have taken it upon themselves to fuel grassroots redistricting
reform efforts in 15 different states, including California, Florida,
Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan,
Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon,
Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Look at that
list and you'll see it is evenly spread across the country, representing
all regions, political leanings and enough electoral votes to
get elected president. Redistricting reform is a growing populist
movement, encouraged by groups like Common Cause, FairVote.org,
and the Centrist Coalition, to name just a few. Even in states
like California and Ohio, where redistricting reform ballot initiatives
were defeated in 2005 by threatened incumbent parties - Democrat
and Republican, respectively - new bipartisan legislative efforts
The resilience of redistricting reform in the face of strenuous
professional partisan opposition is a testament to its urgency
and merit. Congressional scandals and increased public disgust
with the artificial polarization of politics may finally force
Congress and state legislatures alike to end this corrupt bargain.
But it will only happen if our elected representatives are shamed
into taking action. Once redistricting is reformed, the political
process will be more open to competition, while there will be
tangible electoral rewards for working constructively across the
aisle. It is the reform that would open the door to all others.
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author