05/17/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2013

South Carolina Not a Real 'Comeback' Story

(Special post jointly-written by Jeremy Bird and Andrew Claster)

Since last Tuesday's special election in South Carolina's first congressional district, political pundits and countless publications have hailed Mark Sanford's victory as the "comeback story" of the year. Yet Sanford's win is more a tale of gerrymandering and rigged district lines than it is about political redemption.

The basic fact is that the current process works for parties rather than the people. Every ten years, the partisans who control the redistricting process in most states draw congressional district lines designed to help their party maximize the number of seats they win - and thwart the will of the voters. Nationally, the results have been stark: in 2012, Democrats out-polled Republicans by 1.4 million votes in elections for the U.S. House of Representatives - but partisan gerrymandering helped Republicans to a 34-seat advantage.

In other words, the Congress for which the American people voted in 2012 is not the Congress that we got. And the consequences are far-reaching - with many of the policies advocated by the current U.S. House leadership identical to the policies that were rejected at the polls last November by a majority of the more than 130 million American citizens who voted.

When it comes to partisan gerrymandering, both parties are to blame. According to the non-partisan Brennan Center, in states where Republicans controlled the redistricting process, Republicans won 53 percent of the vote and 72 percent of the seats. In states where Democrats controlled the redistricting process, Democrats won 56 percent of the vote and 71 percent of the seats.

South Carolina is hardly unique. In 2012, 41% of the state's House ballots were cast for Democratic candidates - but just one of seven districts (14%) is represented by a Democrat. And in its neighbor to the north, 51% of voters cast their ballot for a Democrat for the U.S. House, but just 31% of North Carolina's elected representatives are Democrats. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, 50% of votes were cast for a Democrat but only 28% of the Pennsylvania House delegation is Democratic. And in Indiana, 45% of votes were cast for the Democrat but just 22% of their US House members are Democrats.

In states where redistricting was controlled by Democrats, a similar imbalance applies. In Illinois, Democrats won 54% of the vote but fully 67% of the U.S. House races. Likewise in Maryland, Democrats won 63% of the vote but took 88% of the races.

So how did these factors play out in last week's special election?

The SC special followed a pattern witnessed in other states with gerrymandered districts, where the party that controls redistricting aims to maximize the number of seats in which it is likely to maintain a comfortable majority - one that will not be overwhelmed even in a bad political year or with a particularly weak or vulnerable candidate. Mark Sanford certainly meets the definition of a vulnerable candidate, and his opponent, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, was a strong Democratic candidate. Yet Sanford won the special election by 9 points - below the Republican average for this district, but still a comfortable victory margin.

That outcome is a victory for the Republican gerrymandering program in South Carolina. Republicans successfully packed as many likely Democratic voters as possible into a single congressional district and then split up all of the remaining Democratic voters among the other districts to ensure that Democratic voters remain a minority in each. As a result, South Carolina Republicans have made it virtually impossible for Democrats to win more than one of the state's seven U.S. House seats, despite winning 41 percent of the vote statewide.

Fortunately, there is a better way to do redistricting. Several states have developed a non-partisan or bi-partisan redistricting process - and it's little surprise that the congressional delegations in these states are much more representative of the will of the voters. In Iowa, for example, 50% of the state's voters cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate and 47% for the Republican. The state's House delegation includes two Democrats and two Republicans.

Other states that have assigned the task of redistricting to non-partisan commissions or established a bi-partisan redistricting process have seen similar results - including Arizona, California, and Washington. These states have produced districts that are more competitive and House delegations that better reflect the partisan makeup of their states.

If South Carolina - and other states - want a government that represents the will of the voters, they need to follow this example. Only then will we have a government in which voters choose their representatives, rather than the other way around.

Jeremy Bird is a partner with 270 Strategies and former National Field Director of the 2012 Obama for America campaign. Andrew Claster was Deputy Chief Analytics Officer on the 2012 Obama campaign.