Every 10 years, based on the latest census data, the states receive new apportionments of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. The state legislatures begin mapping out revised districts to accommodate changes in population, population distribution, and increases or decreases in the number of seats.
And five years later, some state legislatures (at the moment, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia top the list) are still fighting over how to divide the spoils. Districts are re-drawn to protect powerful incumbents, give each major party at least token representation, and preserve the political power of labor lobbies, racial and ethnic communities, and other special interests. Each redistricting scheme ends up in court with multiple trips back to the drawing board.
This process is called “gerrymandering,” after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 signed a state senate redistricting map in which one district resembled a salamander.
It’s an ugly process. Everybody claims to hate it. But nobody seems interested in ending it, though it would be simple to do so.
Judge Robert Bork, later a failed nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, was once tasked with submitting a redistricting plan. He suggested starting in one corner of the state and drawing roughly square districts by population, without regard to special interest factors. His suggestion wasn’t accepted. But it would be easy to implement. Just plug the map and census data into a computer program and voila — uniform districts, fairly drawn.
Even better, why not transition to “at-large” elections for all U.S. representatives?
The district concept was implemented before the invention of the telegraph, at a time when most Americans got their news from a local paper and never strayed more than 50 miles from their birthplaces. Local elections made sense then. Today we cross the continent in hours and read worldwide news seconds after it happens (or watch it AS it happens).
Why not just have a statewide election for (for example) five seats, in which the five top vote-getters are elected? This would not eliminate sectional interests, pork barrel earmarks and other maladies of supposedly representative government entirely, but it would make members of Congress more accountable to large, mixed constituencies and less beholden to the insular coalitions controlling gerrymandered districts.
Switching to “at-large” elections might also mitigate the power of the two-party “duopoly” in favor of more proportional representation, especially if better voting systems — approval voting, single transferable vote and instant run-off are three interesting ideas — were implemented as well.
Which is why it will ever happen. The American political system is brittle. Our politicians would rather break it than bend their will to ours. So maybe we should instead start thinking about what comes next.
(Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism, thegarrisoncenter.org. He lives and works in north central Florida.)