Competitive districts: real change?
Ryan Summerlin September 8, 2011
Do you really want to change the way Washington works? Angry with the gridlock and control by members of the House of Representatives or even state legislatures who draw a line in cement and refuse to budge? The cure could lie in making districts more competitive .
There is a controversy shaping up in redistricting Colorado’s 6th Congressional District held by Republican Mike Coffman that illustrates how making a district more competitive could blunt vitriolic partisanship and unwillingness to compromise.
There is a rule of political science in play here that applies to all levels of districts: The more a district is divided equally among parties and interest groups, the more a candidate has to appeal to a wider variety of factions in order to put together a winning majority vote. Compromise is forced to take place at the lowest level. Waiting until the elected candidate gets into office means that to compromise might require backing down on a campaign promise and risk losing the next election.
Incumbents elected from safe districts have a greater chance of getting re-elected provided they are able to fight off primary challengers. The more they stick by campaign promise, the more likely they will retain their seats. This certainly makes compromise less likely.
Political parties understandably strive to carve out safe seats in areas where their party registration dominates. In 1985 the Supreme Court ruled manipulating boundaries to give one party an advantage was unconstitutional. As a result, judges tend to look more favorably on competitive districts if they are asked to rule on competing plans. In spite of this, of 435 House seats, the Congressional Quarterly found 359 safe.
To keep up with population shifts reflected in the census, redistricting is required every 10 years. Because Colorado Democrats and Republicans could not agree in the state legislature on congressional boundaries last spring, redistricting will be in the hands of the courts.
The Colorado Supreme Court will review a redistricting commission proposal this fall for how the state legislative boundaries will be drawn, including whether Grand County will be put in a solely West Slope state House district or straddle the Continental Divide with some East Slope counties.
Given Grand County’s predominantly Republican registration, being placed with more Democratic-leaning Front Range counties in a state House district might be seen more favorably by judges as making for a more competitive district, with an eye to higher court decisions, though the state constitution does not list the degree of competition as a criteria. (Editor’s note: This proposed legislative district is heavily slanted toward Democrats.)
The U.S. House district boundaries will also be decided this fall, but in federal Denver District Court because both political parties and Hispanics have sued. Some criteria judges will use are whether districts are more competitive and whether Hispanic voices are being given short shrift in representation, contrary to the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. Mike Coffman recently advocated restricting bilingual ballots in the name of cost cutting. The Hispanic community, already angered by Republicans’ over the top anti-immigration reform positions, took his proposal as an attempt to make it harder for Hispanics to vote. The Democratic Party immediately put forth their plan to Denver District Court that would have changed Coffman’s currently heavily Republican district boundaries to include more Hispanics and to make this district more competitive, divided equally between Democrats, independents, and Republicans.
Both increasing competitiveness and Hispanic representation are strong arguments that could sway a judge to rule in favor of plans submitted by Democrats and Hispanics. That could force Coffman, a party line loyalist, to appeal to a wider variety of ideologies and special interests to win his upcoming 2012 race.
If enough redistricting decisions in ours and in other states decrease the number of safe districts, eventually we could change the polarization plaguing Washington and other legislative bodies . Of course, in the short term, the best route would be for voters themselves to kick out those unwilling to compromise.
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