FAIR REDISTRICTINGEvery 10 years, states must redraw the lines of their congressional districts based upon the latest census data. The intended purpose is to ensure that each state has the correct number of representatives based on its current population. In most states, however, these new lines are drawn by the party that currently holds power in the state's own government. This is analogous to allowing the players from one team in a sporting event to determine the rules and create the playing field on which all other teams must compete.
What occurs is that the leaders of the party in power draw the lines so as to group their opponents' supporters into as few areas as possible. Thus, even if the two parties truly have nearly equal numbers of supporters, the lines can be drawn in such a way as to skew the results, allowing the party in power to obtain more than its fair share of seats. The process of drawing district lines in strange shapes so as to effect this unfair skewing of power has a long history and is called gerrymandering.
In addition to creating an unrepresentative balance of power, biased redistricting minimizes competition in congressional races. Since most districts are clearly defined as supporting one party or the other, few candidates from other parties will even bother to contest the incumbent. In fact, this situation makes congressional elections so uncompetitive and predictable that the Center for Voting and Democracy is able to predict the winning party in nearly 100% of congressional elections in their Monopoly Politics Report. Given this situation, is it really any wonder that so many Americans feel that their vote doesn't really matter and that the ballot lacks enough real choice to even make voting worthwhile?
Some states have a more fair system of redistricting. For example, in Iowa the district lines are drawn by a non-partisan arm of the legisature using a more objective computerized process, and only need to be approved by the majority party, rather than created by them. Because of this, tiny Iowa had three competetive congressional races out of its total five - more than California, in which only one of its 53 seats was seriously contested. It is crucial for our democracy that more states follow suit and institute less biased systems of redistricting that offer a true picture of the state's political landscape while encouraging healthy competition for congressional seats.
For more information, visit FairVote's Redistricting Page and EndGerrymandering.com.