Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Opinion

Column: Defeat the gerrymander with a statewide vote

Gerrymandering — redrawing congressional districts to benefit one party — is neither a Republican nor a Democratic plot. Both sides have gladly used it attempting to consolidate power in Congress. Indeed, it has a long history in American politics, dating back 200 years, predating both parties.

But it is more problematic today because minority control can be even more disruptive when that minority has extreme views. Aided by modern technology, gerrymandering has become ever more sophisticated. Today, not only are opponents' votes crowded into a few districts, but lines are redrawn so that super-safe districts are allocated modest majorities while more uncertain seats are given larger majorities.

In effect, all except the conceded districts might become safe for a minority party, and its representatives can be more doctrinaire without much fear of loss in the next election. In the end, gerrymandering results in voter disenfranchisement and is a threat to our confidence in representative democracy.

For those who argue the gerrymandered districts have little impact, look at the 2012 congressional election results. Democratic candidates received some 1.4 million more votes than did Republicans, and yet GOP candidates won a 33-seat majority. Further, both parties make special efforts to win the statehouses in years when redistricting occurs. The evidence suggests that politicians of both parties believe it works, and election results support that belief.

So what to do? Some states have removed redistricting duties from their legislatures with the creation of bipartisan redistricting commissions. California is one such example, and its 2012 distribution of congressional seats roughly approximated the popular vote.

But there is another, maybe better, way: Eliminate all districts and make congressional elections, like those for U.S. senators, statewide. This does not pose a constitutional issue, but a 1967 law requiring one-representative districts would need to be repealed. And, the use of cumulative voting would ensure a voice for minority groups.

In a regular election, you cast a single vote for each office. With cumulative voting, you have one vote for each representative to be elected and may cast those any way you choose. Say a state has seven congressional seats. With a statewide election and cumulative voting, you would have seven votes and all seven could conceivably go to a single candidate. With enough electable seats, a minority group (political or otherwise) voting as a bloc can elect candidates nearly in proportion to the percentage of votes held.

This idea is neither new nor untried. And it works. Illinois used cumulative voting to elect its state House of Representatives for more than 100 years. The courts have directed its use by some municipalities to achieve minority representation in government activities.

Nonpartisan group FairVote proposes a slightly different fix. In states with six or more seats, it would divide them into three- to five-seat districts with a variant of cumulative voting used to elect the representatives. In a five-seat district, a minority of 17 percent of the voters could elect one of the five if it acted strategically with the 83 percent majority winning the remaining four.

Richard Meyer is a professor emeritus in the College of Business at the University of South Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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