How to fix gerrymandering and stop future shutdowns
Entering the government shutdown, many expected the GOP hardliners who precipitated this mess would quickly cave. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), for instance, predicted Republicans would "fold like hotcakes." Yet that hasn't happened, as a small cadre of intransigent Republicans have refused to budge, dragging the party along with them and leaving little reason to believe there will be a resolution any time soon.
Partly to blame for the recalcitrance is that many conservative lawmakers don't have to worry about losing their jobs. Thanks to partisan redistricting, they come from safe red districts where their constituencies either endorse the shutdown or, even if they don't, would never vote for a Democrat.
These numbers, courtesy of the Cook Political Report, bring the situation into stark relief: During the 1995-96 shutdown, 79 House Republicans came from districts Clinton won in the 1992 election. Now, only 17 come from districts Obama won in 2012.
At fault is the dreaded gerrymander, the process of a party in firm control of the state government creatively redrawing districts for their own gain. States draw new boundary lines following each decennial census. After Republicans won huge majorities in statehouses nationwide in the 2010 midterms, several states faced lawsuits over their redistricting plans, with litigation over a proposed new district map in Texas going all the way to the Supreme Court.
So how can we fix the problem?
One option would be to strip state legislatures of their power to redraw districts and turn the duty over to independent commissions.
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) in January introduced legislation that would do just that. Called the John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act — named after former Tennessee Rep. John Tanner (D), who pushed similar bills during his tenure — the legislation would require every state to appoint an independent commission to draft a redistricting plan that "emphasizes geographical contiguity and compactness of districts rather than political affiliations."
A handful of states already have commissions, not lawmakers, draw new districts to mitigate self-serving shenanigans. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that commission-drawn maps lead to more competitive districts.
California implemented a similar plan after the 2010 census, creating the Citizens Redistricting Commission. Though not without its foibles — reports suggested state Democrats secretly stacked the commission in its favor — it at least created a system that was "more accountable, more decisive in the punishment of failure and the rewarding of success," Steve Coll wrote in The New Yorker.
"Surely, it could not be worse than what we have," he quipped.
Another idea would be to do away with winner-takes-all districts in favor of proportional allotment, something advocates call "fair representation voting." Here's Rob Richie of FairVote, a group committed to ending gerrymandering, explaining how it works:
Under fair voting, members of Congress are elected in multi-member districts of three to five representatives instead of just one. In those districts, candidates are elected in proportion to their vote share. A majority of votes always wins a majority of seats, and minority groups of voters that make up more than a certain threshold of votes (25 percent in a three seat district) are always able to elect a representative. [Huffington Post]
In that way, powerful state parties could not, a la Texas' GOP, try to redistrict the opposition into obscurity. For the same reason many have suggested abolishing the electoral college, the plan would aim to bolster the importance of the popular vote.
State legislatures dominated by one party are, understandably, unlikely to implement these reforms on their own. However, voters could pursue ballot initiatives to enact them — as was the case in California.
Tangible results from any reforms would likely go unnoticed until 2020, when states can again redraw their districts after the next census. In the meantime, buckle up: The shutdown is just getting started, and there's another fight on the debt ceiling right around the corner.