01/24/2013 10:00 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Simple Steps to Eliminate Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering congressional borders based on party affiliations, race, or some other criterion in order to maximize your support and minimize your opponent's creates congressional district maps that look like a combination of computer-drawn algorithms and children's crayon art. The idea is to pack the other party's voters into fewer districts, thus limiting the number of districts they can win, or to scatter your opponent's voters among a bunch of districts to deny them a sufficiently large voting bloc in any single district. Gerrymandering is often found in elections where there is a single winner, as opposed to elections where there is proportional representation, and is usually initiated by incumbents tightening their grip on power. The issue is so extreme in the United States that in 2004, election observers from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, a part of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), criticized the congressional redistricting process and the resulting lack of competitiveness in congressional election contests.

Among its undemocratic consequences, gerrymandering gives an extraordinary advantage to incumbents. It also has the side effect of increasing political partisanship since once a politician is assured of reelection (through redistricting), that politician now has less need for compromising with dissenting views or even campaigning in any meaningful way.

Gerrymandering has led to legislative standoffs. In 2003, the Republican majority in the Texas legislature redistricted the state. This redistricting resulted in diluting the voting power of the heavily Democratic counties by distributing their residents out to more Republican districts. Democratic legislators famously "hid" in neighboring states in an attempt to stall the vote. In 2006, the Supreme Court, in a shockingly antidemocratic ruling, upheld the right of states to redistrict for political purposes as often as they like, provided race is not used as a consideration.

Some countries address gerrymandering by tasking nonpartisan organizations or cross-party bodies with defining constituency borders, thus taking the responsibility out of the hands of politicians who have obvious self-interest in the results. Examples include the United Kingdom's Boundary Commission and Australia's Electoral Commission. The Netherlands circumvents the issue of gerrymandering by using an electoral system with only one nationwide voting district for election of national representatives.

In Iowa, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau determines boundaries of electoral districts. The bureau forbids considerations of incumbent impact, previous boundary locations, and political party proportions while satisfying federally mandated contiguity and population equality criteria. Iowa's resulting districts are generally regular polygons, not strangely shaped, politically motivated lines.

Similarly, the states of Washington, Arizona, and California have created standing committees comprising nonpoliticians for the redistricting following the 2010 census. California's Citizens Redistricting Commission issued its maps in June 2011; the maps indicated clear and profound changes in the state's voting picture.

In addition to putting nonpartisan commissions in charge of redistricting, it's time to take legislative action to place regularity constraints on the shapes of districts; this would work better to combat gerrymandering than the current requirements for contiguity and population balance. The contiguity requirement is extremely weak, often resulting in districts with very thin threads of land connecting entirely different parts of a state. Similarly, constraining the shapes of districts would limit the ability of politicians and skilled computer programmers to determine the political representation.

One more point about gerrymandering: If proportional representation were to be implemented, the gerrymandering problem would lose much of its punch. For example, if the number of representatives from each political party for each state were to reflect the overall distribution of the votes, then how you draw the districts within the state would no longer be such an important consideration.

Note: The article above was an excerpt from Howard Steven Friedman's book, "Measure of a Nation."

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