Bring Back the Rectangle -Redistricting For Safe Seats Creates Stalemate

It's time to bring back the rectangle.  Sustainable business needs a functioning government.  We can't find enough scientists and engineers for the green industry we want to build, but we send thousands of recent engineering grads, masters and PhD s home when they finish school each year, because they are not citizens and – well we just couldn't figure out immigration reform – even when it had bipartisan support at times.  NGOs that depend on contributions are left dangling by the impact of the estate tax stalemate. Don't even get me started on health care or income taxes.  President Obama entered the lions den, aka the House Republican retreat in Baltimore, and engaged in a genuine exchange of views (which hasn't happened in public for some time) but it's going to take more than talk, more even than a blue ribbon bipartisan panel – and the problem isn't mindless obstructionism in either party, it's the logical result of a downward spiral created by years of increasingly brazen redistricting.

Almost every member of the House is engaged in a perpetual campaign, yet a surprising number hold “safe” seats, i.e., they represent districts in which the party of the incumbent has a big edge (say 60-40 or more) in registered voters.   Why so many safe seats?  Because voting districts are often drawn by state legislators in a highly political process.    In some states, New Jersey for example, redistricting is an exercise in bipartisan back scratching, the state legislators cooperate to make sure that all (to the extent possible) incumbent NJ representatives in the US House get a safe seat, even if it takes some really creative geometry to get those districts right.  In some states redistricting is a partisan fight. Tom DeLay led the bloodiest battle since the Alamo to redraw the Texas map so that a majority of Texas delegates to the House would come from reasonably safe Republican districts.  Note that even in the battleground states, the majority party will still be creating some safe seats for the minority.  It's simple math.  If a state with ten representatives is 51% Republican and 49% Democrat and the legislature draws a funny looking map that produces eight districts with a 60-40 Republican edge, those last two districts are going to be  85-15 Democratic.  Drawing the funny lines won't make the minority party voters go away, it will concentrate them in their own, super safe districts.

What's wrong with a safe seat?  Isn't it nice to have a Congressman who's not always campaigning and desperately seeking campaign contributions?  With the pressure off, won't my Congressman be a little more statesmanlike, think a little longer term?  Nice theory, it's not what I'm seeing in Washington.  Our representatives are logical.  They realize that a safe seat means they should win in November, if they can get there.  The most likely threat to reelection is in the primary.  Only the party hard core vote in primaries, and a shockingly small number of people can actually decide who is going to the House of Representatives, especially since a plurality usually wins in a multi-candidate primary.  Consequently, incumbents strive to satisfy the party base, not the majority in the middle that shows up for the general election.  The safe seat is really safe only when the party leadership and party faithful are not restless and the campaign war chest is so full that potential rivals within the same party run scared.

What can we do about redistricting?  We can't abolish it.  Populations grow and shift.  Without periodic redistricting one representative might represent ten million voters, another ten thousand.  In fact, the census results will soon trigger much redistricting activity, although only the fights will draw attention.  We probably shouldn't oversimplify redistricting.  For example, a  mandate that every district must be drawn so as to include registered voter populations substantially proportional to the populations in the state as a whole might be feasible, but is it really desirable?  The minority party in a 55-45 state  might well end up never winning any seats.  What we can stop is the creation of  “safe” seats as an objective.  It's probably too much to expect leadership and ethics from the state legislatures, so let a non-political commission lead redistricting, as several states already do, limit the legislature's role, and remind everyone that when drawing voting districts, the simple  rectangle has that understated elegance we need to recapture. 

Photo Credit: Whitewall Buick