Following the results of the 2010 census, many states are preparing to reorganize their congressional districts, as they gain or lose U.S. representatives (see here and here). My state, New York, will lose two of its 29 seats. Nearby New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Ohio will each lose one seat.
Meanwhile, states that have grown in population in the last ten years — Texas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and others — will gain seats. This all makes sense from the view of having representation based on population, and the chart of the most and least populated congressional districts in the second link above is an interesting one.
There are two things about this that are bothersome, though.
The first is how we go about the redistricting. It’s done state by state, of course, with each state deciding its own rules. Most states (New York included) have their legislatures do it, which makes it a very partisan process. Districts are defined in ways designed to maximize the number of seats controlled by one particular party, the one that holds the majority in the legislature at the time of the redistricting.
Creating oddly shaped districts for these manipulative purposes is called gerrymandering, and it’s a very anti-democratic process. New York hasn’t fared too badly in that regard as far as the U.S. congressional districts go. Our worst example — notorious, really — is the 28th congressional district, which is likely to be absorbed by neighbouring districts in this redistricting pass anyway. By artificially grouping the (Democratic) northern Buffalo suburbs in with Rochester, using a thin connecting strip along Lake Ontario, it protects the more rural 26th district for a Republican representative.
It makes much more sense to make the redistricting non-partisan. States should create redistricting committees that are separated from the political process and not answerable to the legislature, and empower them to deal with the necessary changes.
The second bothersome thing is the effect redistricting has on the presidential elections. Because the electoral votes each state gets is directly related to the number of the state’s senators and congressional representatives, New York will collectively lose two votes — in the 2012 election we’ll get 29 electors instead of 31.
You might say that that’s as it should be, since our population has gone down, and I’d partly agree. The problem is that the effect is indirect, and, in a sense, New Yorkers — especially Republican New Yorkers, but the same is true for Democratic Texans — are disenfranchised in the presidential elections. In 2008, I could say with essentially 100% confidence that New York would give 31 electors to the Democratic presidential candidate, no matter how I cast my vote. Whether I voted for Mr Obama, Mr McCain, Mr Nader, Mr Barr, Ms McKinney... or whether I wrote in Pat Paulsen... it didn’t matter in the slightest.
In the 2012 presidential election, Republicans in New York will be slightly better off, in that they will know that New York will give only 29 electors to the Democratic candidate, rather than 31. Yet it still won’t matter how they vote. Redistricting gives a moderate shuffle to the numbers ever three presidential elections, but it still does nothing to address the underling problem of the obsolete electoral college.
So it’s time to put in another plug for the National Popular Vote plan, a mechanism to get each voter’s vote to count equally. New York has signed onto it, along with Illinois, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, Maryland, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia. There’s widespread support, but we need to push more state legislatures to adopt it.