Here in Utah we’re approaching the end of a months-long ordeal forced upon us (and every other state) every ten years by the Constitution: congressional redistricting. And with the results of the 2010 census showing that Utah is entitled to a fourth congressional seat, the stakes are extra high for parties and individual candidates (or prospective candidates — I’m looking at you @CarlWimmer) alike.
In Utah, the ultimate authority to set electoral boundaries rests with the Republican-dominated state legislature, which has created a redistricting commission tasked with recommending a proposal to the general legislative body at the special legislative session set to begin on next Monday, October 3, 2011. For the last three months (or more), the commission has been travelling all over the state to obtain public input on specific proposals and general principles.
Yesterday morning, September 27, 2011, the redistricting commission met at the state capitol to take action on some proposed maps and to take public input. I attended — for the first time. Although things were an hour late in getting underway, it was nonetheless an interesting show once it got going.
Ultimately, the commission adopted a base map — referred to by the straightforward name Sumsion_06_Modified_A — which I don’t particularly like for a number of reasons. But that’s a post for later this week. Right now, I want to speak more generally about redistricting, realizing that I’m woefully late to the party.
One of the reasons redistricting is such a reliably thorny issue is there’s no consensus on what redistricting is meant accomplish. Is redistricting just about accounting for shifts in population in the years since the last census? Is it about ensuring meaningful (or more meaningful) electoral competition? Is it an opportunity to strengthen democratic institutions and community bonds? Or, more cynically, is it just another opportunity for the more dominant party to consolidate political advantage and a tool for demographically weak geographies (whether urban or rural) to maintain political power out of proportion to population?
Practically-speaking, redistricting is all of these things. In a more ideal world, however, it is (or should be) about all of the first three and not about the last two. Redistricting should be a balancing exercise, in which state legislatures meet, at least every ten years, to account for changing demographics and to structure the rules of political competition in ways that ensure elections remain meaningfully contested, democratic commitment is strengthened, and sense of political community is maintained. Hardly an enviable task . . . which is something we should all keep in mind the next time we criticize (as we often must) the poor souls assigned to the task.
Things become even more complicated because our state legislators aren’t free to balance these three considerations in any way they see fit. There are some rules that assign preference.
If for no other reason than Supreme Court mandate, one redistricting concern necessarily predominates over the other two: that there be an equivalency of each man or woman’s vote. Known more simply as the “One Man, One Vote” doctrine, voter equivalency requires that, at the very least, congressional districts may not be so skewed in population as to meaningfully dilute or concentrate a person’s vote in relation to those of voters in other districts.
While this doesn’t require exact mathematical equivalency in population among districts, it requires that you get pretty darn close, especially when you’re redistricting for congressional seats. In fact, the Supreme Court has declined to set any safe harbor for population deviation in redistricting (i.e., it has refused to say something like “so long as population deviation is not greater than 1 percent, you’re OK”). Instead, the Court has left the rule as “you’ve got to get as close to perfect equivalency as possible, unless you have a legitimate concern justifying minimal deviation.” This essentially tells the state legislators tasked with drawing congressional electoral boundaries that the only time they can be absolutely certain of being immune to challenge is where they draw boundaries with the minimum possible amount of deviation; once they choose to depart from that principle, they enter a realm of uncertainty: their efforts may be upheld, but they may also be struck down on judicial challenge.
The practical effect of the Supreme Court’s “One Man, One Vote” doctrine is to severely limit the extent that a state legislature can consider other factors in drawing congressional electoral districts. This is a necessary limitation, given our country’s system of representation and political history. But some legislatures use this necessary limitation as an excuse to not consider other factors at all, or to give them only the most cursory consideration. I believe that such an approach is misguided and not mandated by law.
In my opinion, redistricting should be about making individual votes as meaningful as they can be, within the constraints of the “One Man, One Vote” doctrine. Indeed, the fundamental idea underlying the “One Man, One Vote” doctrine is that skewed population distributions among congressional districts undermine the efficacy of individual votes. But there are other ways besides population deviation in which the efficacy of a vote can be undermined. It’s important to remember that even though we vote as individuals, we live in different places and act collectively. Collective action determined by individual votes means that the efficacy of an individual’s vote can be undermined by the creation of “safe” districts. It means that the efficacy of a person’s vote can be undermined by the creation of districts designed specifically to exclude opposing viewpoints from having any say in governance. It means that the efficacy of an individual’s vote can be effectively undermined, or even silenced, as to specific issues, by unnecessarily splitting up connected neighborhoods or “communities of interest,” difficult as those are to define.
Now, none of this means that a redistricting legislature should pursue these goals without regard to the realities on the ground. That, too, would undermine the efficacy of individual votes. Where one governing philosophy or political party predominates over another in a jurisdiction because it has prevailed in the public contest of ideas, redistricting shouldn’t be used to manufacture competition inconsistent with that reality. But where a more competitive option consistent with the “One Man, One Vote” doctrine exists, it should be pursued over a less competitive option. Where a more community-friendly option consistent with the “One Man, One Vote” doctrine, exists that should be pursued over an option that cuts apart communities of similar demographic characteristics and historical attachment. And certainly, either of these are preferable to an option, even if it is consistent with the “One Man, One Vote” doctrine, that unnecessarily undermines both the goals of competition and community.
And if the goals of competition and community can be significantly better served by a small deviation in population among districts, legislatures should be willing to take a small risk and pursue those options, because they are consistent with what I believe should be the underlying goal of the redistricting process — competitive elections, strong democratic institutions, and maintenance of the sense of political community.
Making these judgment calls isn’t easy. And, when it’s done right, no one is going to be 100 percent happy. Lines have to be drawn somewhere, and inevitably, they will divide neighborhoods, separate communities, and provide some practical advantage to some candidates over others. But the fact that no map can be drawn that satisfies everyone isn’t a license to fully embrace redistricting as a tool for political advantage. Redistricting, frustrating as it is, is extraordinarily important. It’s about ensuring that people are meaningfully represented in our compound constitutional republic, and it requires the very best good faith efforts of our representatives.