By Kelly McCutchen
People love trivia, so here’s a test: Describe the boundaries of your U.S. congressional district, as well as your Georgia House and Senate district. No clue? Don’t feel bad; outside of political operatives that keep district maps on their Palm Pilot, few people can pass the test. That’s why the biggest surprise for many voters on Election Day was not finding out the results of the election after they voted, but discovering what district they were in when they entered the voting booth.
It’s bad enough that most voters can’t identify their elected officials, as Jay Leno so often points out with his “man on the street” interviews. But by creating these irregular shapes that we call political districts, we should not be surprised that voters are not only uninformed, but unengaged and confused.
Armed with laptop computers loaded with sophisticated software, the redistricting gurus can target Democrat and Republican voters with the accuracy of a smart bomb. Little thought is given to communities and common sense as they jump from street to street and carve through neighborhood after neighborhood in search of every last voter to consolidate their power and fine-tune their master plan.
This high-tech “gerrymandering” is not only bad public policy, but it often backfires. Georgia is a perfect example. After attempts in 1990 and 2000 by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to create districts favorable to Democrats, the result is now a Republican-dominated congressional delegation, a Republican governor and quite possibly a Republican-controlled state Senate.
Georgia is perhaps the most egregious example, but Democrats certainly are not alone in their partisan fervor. Districts created in 2000 by Michigan Republicans would easily win a spot in the Gerrymandering Hall of Fame. In fact, the GOP-controlled legislature managed to stuff six Democratic incumbents into just three seats. Both political parties are equal-opportunity offenders. Back-room deals are even cut in legislatures without one dominating party. “You protect me and I’ll protect you” is the behind-the-scenes motto.
Politicians like to talk about their involvement in the community, but how can a congressman really get to know the people of a community in a district like the 13th that surrounds metro Atlanta or the 12th that runs from Athens to Savannah? What about the countless citizens whose views have little chance of being heard because they live in a district drawn so that their party is so overwhelmed the incumbent is never challenged and voters have no choices? Or think about the 14,253 residents of Pike County, Georgia, who are represented by one state representative, but find themselves divided by three state Senate districts.
Redistricting is an inherently political process – and this will not change. However, states like Iowa and Arizona have successfully limited the partisanship by passing laws requiring political districts to meet clear, measurable criteria. For example, Iowa requires contiguous districts; unity of counties and cities (maintaining county lines and “nesting” house districts within Senate districts and Senate districts within congressional districts); and compactness.
Iowa Congressional Districts
More explicitly, the Iowa Constitution requires that “no county shall be divided in forming a congressional district.” Iowa law also states, “A district shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring a political party, incumbent legislator, or member of Congress or other person or group or for the purpose of augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group. In establishing districts, no use shall be made of the addresses of incumbent legislators or members of Congress, the political affiliations of registered voters, previous election results, or demographic information other than population head counts.”
A similar process driven by clear criteria would eliminate many of the problems in our current map. No longer would districts narrow to the width of a state highway for miles and miles with the only constituents composed of turtles, deer and armadillos crossing the road. No longer would district lines split neighborhoods and small towns. No longer would the cost of running for office be needlessly increased by districts that covered multiple media markets.
Come January, the first order of business of the new General Assembly should be to reform the rules governing redistricting. A fair, objective process will restore trust in elected officials, increase voter participation and create a better Georgia for us all.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (November 8, 2002). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.