Adam Nagourney of the New York Times did a broad-brush review today of the widespread interest in redistricting reform across the nation. The piece is especially useful because it (a) makes it clear this movement is not limited to Arnold Schwarzennegar's high-profile initiative in California; and (b) suggests this idea may be catching on in the way earlier electoral reform efforts like campaign finance reform and term limits did in years past.
Since I am a big advocate of redistricting reform, I'd like to play off the Nagourney article to clarify a few points that have confused the debate on this subject to date:
(1) Redistricting reform deals with two distinct but inter-related problems: (a) the increasingly alarming ability of U.S. House members to obtain non-competitive districts, which in turn reduces the percentage of districts "in play," reinforcing the majority's ability to retain power (while also increasing the partisan and ideological polarization of that chamber); and (b) the inherent conflict of interest involved in state legislative districts drawn by incumbents themselves.
(2) There are two types of gerrymanders at issue: (a) partisan gerrymanders that maximize the ability of one party or another to harvest a disproportionate majority of seats in a given state; (b) incumbent-protection gerrymanders that simply eliminate competition. After the re-redistricting of 2003, Texas produced a classic pro-GOP partisan gerrymander; Florida and Pennsylvania produced similar results prior to 2002. Georgia prior to 2002 produced a (partially successful) pro-Democratic partisan gerrymander. Meanwhile, California engineered perhaps the most efficient incumbent- protection gerrymander in history prior to 2002, both in Congressional and state legislative seats, virtually outlawing marginal districts.
(3) Two potentially parallel but quite different "reforms" under discussion are: (a) partially or completely removing the power to draw districts from partisan state legislators to "independent" commissions or the courts (the central thrust of the Schwarzennegar initiative, and a feature in many states' systems at present); and (b) establishing legal conditions for redistricting that either reduce partisanship as a legitimate factor, and/or elevate non-partisan factors like compactness, contiguity, community of interest, or even competitiveness itself (Iowa being the classic example).
(4) Interest in redistricting reform ranges from "good-government" groups and citizen actvists who support it as a matter of principle and would apply it everywhere, and partisans who want to pursue it selectively in states where the other party has obtained a significant advantage in redistricting. A growing number of Democrats appear to be moving from the second group to the first on grounds that the current system is in danger of creating a potentially enduring Republican majority both in the U.S. House and among state legislators.
(5) A complicating factor in the law and politics of redistricting is the Voting Rights Act, especially as applied by the Bush I Justice Department during the 1990s redistricting cycle, which required not only the maximum number of majority-minority districts in jurisdictions subject to the Act, but also the construction of prohibitively large majorities for minority candidates. This meant that Republican voters were spread more "efficiently" across district lines while Democrats were often concentrated in extravagantly safe seats.
(6) There is something of an academic backlash against redistricting reform, best represented by a recent Emory University study that concluded redistricting was at most a minor factor, as compared with partisan polarization and the financial advantages of incumbents, in the decline in marginal U.S. House seats (indeed, this study was rather hastily cited by Ruy Teixeira as "proving" Democrats should not think of redistricting as a problem worth worrying about). A contrary view was presented by Gary Jacobson in an analysis of the 2002 House results. But even if redistricting is not necessarily the primary cause of the plague of safe seats, that in no way suggests it could not be the cure: voters are not neatly, geographically self-segregated into nearly 400 isolated communities characterized by partisan leanings. An Iowa-type system that places a premium on competitiveness could definitely break up the duopoly, especially in larger states.
Sorting through all these issues, the bottom line is pretty clear, at least for me:
* The current trend towards selection of voters by politicians is inherently anti-democratic, inherently polarizing, and inherently corrupting; and if Democrats want to be the "party of reform," we should embrace redistricting reform as a matter of principle.
* To the extent that Republicans currently control the U.S. House, enjoy a more efficient distribution of voters, and hold, for the foreseeable future, a red state/blue state advantage, redistricting reform is good for "large D" Democrats as well as "small d" democracy.
* If the arduous task of redistricting reform is undertaken, reformers should not stop at changing the identity of the map-drawers, but should push for positive laws that create a larger and more even battleground.