It’s a bedrock principle of our democracy: Americans exercise their franchise and vote to elect representatives for local, state and federal offices. Voters choose their elected officials. But that’s not how it works.
Politicians control the process to draw the district boundaries within which they run. Effectively, politicians are choosing their voters, not the other way around.
It’s called gerrymandering, and it’s a problem. Every ten years, the United States conducts a census of its population and state legislatures redraw the political boundaries – redistrict – to account for shifts in population.
Politicians engage in gerrymandering to maximize their partisan political advantage. Politicians examine demographic and political information to draw legislative and Congressional districts that either pack opposition voters into a handful of districts or crack those voters – dividing them into many districts and diluting their influence. In both instances, the result is more seats for the political party drawing the maps. Since redistricting occurs once every ten years, the politicians controlling the process wield incredible influence over the political and policy outcomes for years to come.
Bottom line: Citizens lose when politicians choose their voters.
Late last year, federal judges found maps drawn by the Wisconsin Legislature unconstitutional. The judges found that the maps overwhelming favored Republicans, winning 61 percent of the Assembly’s 99 seats in 2012 while only capturing 48 percent of the vote. Plaintiffs relied on a new metric to evaluate the extent of gerrymandering, called the efficiency gap. The Supreme Court heard the case, Gill v. Whitford, but ruled the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the maps – sending the case back to the lower court.
Thirty states rely primarily on redistricting commissions independent of the Legislature to draw state legislative districts. In Iowa, nonpartisan legislative staff draw legislative districts without political information, election results data, or knowledge of where incumbent politicians live. After a referendum, California voters established a commission equally balanced between Republicans, Democrats and Californians with no political party. Maps must gain the approval of all three groups.