Few news reports have infuriated me as much as the one coming out of Alabama, where the state legislature’s plan to redraw congressional districts was recently approved by a divided United States Supreme Court. Since 1790 the federal government has conducted a census every 10 years. Based on the resulting population statistics, each state is allocated a certain number of seats to the House of Representatives. With the number of representatives fixed at 435 since 1912, individual states gain and lose representatives over time.
The states are responsible for redrawing the new districts within their own borders. Each district is supposed to have roughly equal population so that no group of people is over- or underrepresented. Sad to say, corruption and conflict-of-interest are at the very heart of the process. Because they are dominated by one of the two parties, a Republican state house, for example, will draw the boundaries to ensure that Republicans dominate the state’s congressional delegation, thereby badly skewing election results. Democrats quite happily do the same in the states they dominate.
This is known as gerrymandering, after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who signed a bill in 1812 creating a bizarrely-shaped district wrapping around Boston which, on the map, resembled a salamander. More recently, the Illinois General Assembly created a district encompassing two distant neighbourhoods in Chicago connected only by a thin line running down Interstate 294.
Because democracy is supposed to give voice to citizens, the process whereby they make their voices heard is crucial to the long-term health and viability of a political system. But Alabama, despite its African-American population amounting to almost 27 percent of the total, redrew its districts so that only one out of seven has an African-American majority, reducing their proportionate voice by nearly half. This was the result of a Republican legislature attempting to ensure that the state elected Republicans to Congress.
How to remedy this? There are two possibilities. The first is to establish Canadian-style electoral boundaries commissions to draw the new districts. In this country three members are appointed for each province, two by the Speaker of the House of Commons and one by the chief justice of the relevant province. Such commissions are supposed to be impartial and certainly not biased towards any particular political party. The law carefully sets out the rules governing what we call redistribution to ensure that Canadians are fairly represented within the parameters of our first-past-the-post electoral system.
The second possibility would see Americans adopting some form of proportional representation (PR) on a state-by-state basis. A straight party list system would have voters choosing, not a local candidate, but a list determined by party leaders for the state. This means that if 45 percent of California voters chose a Democratic list, 23 or 24 seats out of the state’s 53 representatives would go to Democrats. In Alabama, African-American voters, who generally favour Democrats, would likely send two Democratic representatives to Washington.
However, given the size and diversity of the U.S., and given Americans’ attachment to their local communities, a form of PR that takes this into account would be better. Germany’s mixed-member-proportional (MMP) system does this very well by retaining the best of our current system, dividing the country into so many electoral districts and allowing citizens a second vote for a party list. MMP would add an element of proportionality to a state’s congressional delegation.
In New Zealand it took a political crisis to move voters there to adopt PR. Given the current polarization in the US and the severe dysfunction in the two major parties, the time may finally have arrived to consider another way—one that would allow other parties to gain representation in Congress, thereby making for fairer representation in states like Alabama.
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