Voters are supposed to choose their representatives, but the flawed redistricting process in our nation too often allows representatives to choose their voters. This rigged game is in full flower in Virginia, which has an accelerated redistricting process this year because elections for its House of Delegates and Senate take place in November. State Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw (D) was stunningly candid in a recent radio interview in describing the process politicians would follow to redraw the lines:
“The House does theirs. The Senate does theirs. And I’m not gonna interfere with the lines the House draws for the House. And they’re not gonna interfere with the lines I draw for the Senate. And I would simply say, well, you know, our goal is to make the Democratic districts, particularly the marginal ones, a little bit better than they are now. I’m not greedy. I’m not trying to put all the Republicans out of business by any stretch. They didn’t do that to us 10 years ago. And we’re not gonna do that to them.”
Saslaw described a classic bipartisan incumbent gerrymander; the majority Democrats in the state Senate would let the majority Republicans in the state House stack the deck for its incumbents, and vice versa. The biggest losers? The voters of Virginia, denied competitive elections in which the outcomes reflect their collective preferences.
The situation is different but just as smelly for the redrawing of lines for Virginia’s 11 congressional seats. As Politico described last week, the 11 incumbents — three Democrats and eight Republicans — cut a deal to protect each other, solidifying the GOP’s 8-to-3 edge by making several competitive seats strongly Republican while allowing Democrats to make a sinecure out of the seat of Rep. Gerry Connolly, who barely won in 2010.
Around the country, comparable deals will be cut by pols intent on protecting each other or maximizing the number of seats a party controls (in a way that distorts the actual partisan balance in the state). Thanks to the Supreme Court, the only restraint, other than adhering to the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, is to make sure that all the districts are virtually equal in population. With the aid of sophisticated software, the one-person, one-vote rule allows ample scope for the self-interested manipulation of district boundaries.
Politicians could get away with this in the past because few others had access to the tools to create districts using official census data and past election returns.
Michael McDonald of George Mason University and Micah Altman of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, working in conjunction with our two think tanks, have created the Public Mapping Project, an open-source software package that enables anybody to create districts for any state that balance such desirable qualities as compactness and the protection of communities of interest with competitiveness and partisan fairness, all while satisfying one-person, one-vote and the Voting Rights Act.