‘Safe seats’ stifle democracy
California and other states have created nonpartisan commissions to redraw congressional districts. The result may be more competitive races and a healthier democracy.
In the 2002 and 2004 elections for the US House, 99 percent of incumbents in both parties were reelected. In the last two midterm elections – the first a Democratic landslide, the second a Republican one – nearly 90 percent of incumbents still were reelected.
With just under a year to go before the next national elections, states are entering the final stages of their once-a-decade reapportionment of House seats, based on the results of the latest census. According to a recent count by The Associated Press, 19 states had still to figure out how to redraw their congressional districts. At least four that have already drawn up new maps face challenges in court.
When redistricting is the responsibility of state legislatures, as it is in 37 states, it becomes a crassly political process in which the party in power tries to redraw districts to its advantage.
While it might seem logical to suppose that districts would be constructed to favor the ruling party in as many districts as possible, another principle usually trumps this: Incumbents want to be given not just a slight edge but a completely “safe seat,” districts in which their party holds an overwhelming advantage in registration.
To accomplish this, the opposing party is granted a few districts in which it will hold an overwhelming majority, creating “safe seats” on both sides of the aisle. State politicians also favor “safe seats” because long-term incumbents accrue seniority and rise to leadership positions, enhancing their influence.
The losers? The voting public, beginning with the voters who favor the minority party in these gerrymandered districts. They have little hope of ever being represented by a member of Congress who reflects their political views.