Just Thinking

Other Factors Get Nod Over Competitiveness

by Richard Gilman

The drawing of new legislative districts in the once-a-decade rite of redistricting is a teeter-totter that is tilting heavily to one side.

On one end of the teeterboard is a pair of principles.  The first protects the voting rights of minorities.  The second preserves so-called “communities of interest” such as towns, neighborhoods and – once again – particular minorities.

Perched on the opposite end is an equally worthwhile principle, this one to draw districts in which candidates of both parties have a realistic chance of winning.  Competitive districts produce more voter interest and elect politicians who have learned to appease conflicting viewpoints.

The ideal result for an Independent Redistricting Commission is to balance the objectives as evenly as possible. 

Unfortunately, however, every pound of flesh added to one end comes at the expense of the other.  And although some members of the commission might want us to believe otherwise, the legislative districts now being considered are very much weighted in one direction.

The commission has overloaded minorities, most of who vote Democratic, into those districts that are designed to allow them to elect candidates of their choice.  That leaves fewer Democrats, who are in short supply anyway, to match up with Republicans in what could have been competitive districts. 

Several factors add to the imbalance: 

  • The standards for providing adequate protection of minorities are fuzzy.  The commission can only guess high if it wants to meet its chairperson’s oft-stated goal of getting required approval from the U.S. Justice Dept. on the first try.
  • Certain Hispanic legislators, even those who never have had to face an opponent in a general election because the cards already are so stacked in their favor, have an unslakable thirst for more advantage.  They keep appearing before the commission to argue that even more minority voters should be packed into their districts.
  • The commission has shown a penchant for defining “communities of interest” very broadly.  In one of the most obvious examples, it didn’t stop with keeping the Navajo Nation intact.  It went a step further by encircling as many other Indian reservations as it could into the same district, thereby making not Navajos but native Americans the operative community of interest.

The result is four legislative districts in which the protected minority makes up more than 60 percent of the voting age population.  Another four districts exceed 50 percent.   

These percentages go well beyond those contained in the existing legislative map, even after it was amended to get Justice Department approval 10 years ago.  Only one district exceeded 60 percent, a second was close to that percentage, and two others exceeded 50 percent.

The excess in the new plan leaves Democrats as another minority needing protection.  Even fewer of them are left to bulk up the competitive side of the teeter-totter.

Here again, the standard is mushy.  The commission has considered three possible indices for judging the competitiveness of districts, but has not settled on any of them.  Nor has it specified how close to a precise 50-50 split the two parties need to be under any of the measures.

Suffice it to say, very few of the 30 legislative districts in the proposed map even come close.  Under any of the proposed standards, Democrats and Republicans are within 5 percentage points of each other in at most three districts.  They are within 10 percentage points in only two more.

With one side of the teeter-totter weighted down by extra protection for minorities, competitiveness has been left to dangle in the breeze.

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