Crazy-Quilt Districts Make Your Vote Pointless

Tony Quinn is co-editor of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan analysis of legislative and congressional elections. He was on the Legislature's redistricting staff in 1971 and 1981.

The House of Representatives is the house of extremes -- the least representative political body in the world’s major democracies. There is no room for diversity of opinion. And it will stay that way.

Of the 435 House elections Tuesday, only about four dozen are remotely competitive. Not one of California’s 51 House incumbents is in danger of losing his or her seat.

The politicians owe their job security to gerrymandering, the handiwork of an early Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, who discovered that you can ordain the outcome of elections by how you draw electoral districts.


Governors and senators run statewide. State legislatures draw congressional districts, a political process that has become ever more sophisticated and partisan. The 2001 congressional redistricting was the most extreme gerrymandering in history, which is why there are virtually no House contests.

The Rothenberg Political Report rates only six House races as toss-ups. It considers just 44 seats in play. The remaining 391 incumbents are safe. (In contrast, Rothenberg says eight Senate races, out of 34, are toss-ups.) Put another way, in the most highly contested states in the race for president, nearly all House incumbents are safe. Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida could go for Sen. John Kerry or President Bush, yet Ohio and Florida have no contested House races, and Pennsylvania only four. The lack of competition reflects in part the nation’s polarization. Red states send mostly conservative Republicans to Congress; blue states mostly liberal Democrats. Such polarization is evident within states too.

Thirty years ago, there were competitive seats in the Bay Area, and the two major parties split the rural districts of the Central Valley. Today, coastal California is far more liberal than the state as a whole, while eastern California is more conservative. The state’s congressional representatives reflect this reality.

The late Rep. Phil Burton (D-San Francisco) was a master of gerrymandering. In 1981, through the use of clever political cartography, he transformed California’s House delegation from one that was roughly balanced into one that was 28 to 17 Democratic. State Republicans vowed to get even, but they have not been in a position to carry out their threat. In 2001, they happily settled for a bipartisan gerrymander that made every California member of Congress safe.

But Republicans in Pennsylvania and Texas had the power to draw political blood. The Texas gerrymander, orchestrated by one of the state’s top Republicans, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, will produce as many as eight new GOP House members, guaranteeing that Democrats probably won’t retake control of the House any time soon.

The easiest way to restore democracy to the House (and state legislatures across the country) is to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians. That’s easier said than done, of course. But when he announced his support for the blanket primary initiative, Proposition 62, on the California ballot, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger repeated his call for an independent commission to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district lines. Schwarzenegger’s is not a voice easily ignored.


We already know how this would work in California. State Supreme Court masters drew the district lines in 1991 after former Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a sweetheart deal cooked up in the Legislature. They applied constitutional standards ignored in legislative remappings. The result: Numerous legislative and congressional districts changed parties in the 1990s.

Ted Costa, the driving force behind the recall election, is circulating a proposed measure for the 2006 ballot that would set up an independent commission to remap the state politically. Its advantage is that it would call for mid-decade redistricting, so the gerrymandered districts would go sooner. If the measure qualified in early 2005, Schwarzenegger could call a special election and have new district lines in place by 2006.

There is also a small chance the courts will get more involved. They entered the gerrymander thicket with the landmark Baker vs. Carr decision in 1962, which made redistricting a judicial question as well as a political one. Subsequent rulings declared that districts should at least have equal populations and not discriminate against racial or ethnic minorities. So far so good. But the intervening decades have been notable for a lack of judicial attention to gerrymandering.

In the 1980s, California Republicans, then victims of gerrymandering schemes, begged the courts to weigh in. The then-liberal California Supreme Court, under former Chief Justice Rose Bird, refused. Now Democrats, who once told the courts to keep out, welcome them in.

Democrats challenged the Pennsylvania redistricting in 2001, after a Republican plan emasculated them. In the same way that liberal judges refused to act in the 1980s, their conservative counterparts have upheld mostly Republican gerrymanders this decade. The same five U.S. Supreme Court justices who sided with Bush in the 2000 presidential race upheld the Pennsylvania gerrymander.

But the high court may be switching direction. In sending back for possible trial a challenge to DeLay’s Texas gerrymander, it expressed some concern for “the rights of fair and effective representation,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy put it.


Forty years ago, in the landmark Reynolds vs. Sims decision on legislative districts, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote: “As long as ours is a representative form of government, the right to elect legislators in a free and unimpaired fashion is a bedrock of our political system.”

That was before computers, databases and Machiavellian map-drawers drained the competition out of House elections. The courts and the people should put competition back in.