Redistricting: An Opportunity to Put Policy Over Politics

By Kelly McCutchen

In ordering legislators to redraw the state House and Senate district maps by March 1, a panel of federal judges has given Georgia legislators an opportunity to put sound policy over politics.

The sound policy in this case is to draw compact, logical districts that keep communities together and encourage competitive elections. Districts designed to protect incumbents of one particular party only encourage voter apathy and cynicism about our government, increase the influence of special interests and produce career politicians who become more interested in increasing their own influence and power rather than representing the people they serve.

Our democratic republic is at risk when the average citizen – even politically active citizens – cannot describe the boundaries of their U.S. congressional district, or their Georgia House and Senate district. 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. If we create these irregular 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. Despite 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 a Republican-controlled state Senate.

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 state senator really get to know his constituents in a district like the 51st that runs from Cherokee County in metro Atlanta more than 100 miles all the way up to rural Rabun County in the state’s northeast corner? What about the countless citizens whose views have little chance of being heard because they live in a district drawn to so overwhelm their party that the incumbent is never challenged and voters have no choices? Or think about the 14,253 residents of Pike County in Middle 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 such as 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 and compactness. Although the Iowa legislature has the final responsibility for enacting both congressional and state legislative district plans, a nonpartisan advisory commission has initial responsibility. It develops up to three plans that can be accepted or rejected by the legislature.

More explicitly, Iowa law 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.

Partisan redistricting limits the people’s voice by protecting career politicians and arbitrarily insulating them from competition. Partisan districts also make the power of incumbency nearly insurmountable. Setting the standard of a fair, objective, nonpartisan 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 (February 13, 2004). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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