Rethinking redistricting

Mondale-Carlson proposal offers a way to make state politics more competitive.

Every two years, more than 90 percent of incumbent U.S. Representatives are reelected. While that kind of rate may seem more befitting a banana republic than the world’s oldest continuous democracy, there’s a reason why, and it has nothing to do with name recognition or fundraising advantages. It’s called gerrymandering, and it practically decides who goes to Washington before a single vote is cast.

Gerrymandering is the drawing of congressional and legislative districts by state legislatures to give political advantage to one party or the other. This is usually done by grouping particular voters together to concentrate their influence in a small area (called “Packing”) or to parcel them out into tiny pockets and make their voting strength weak (or “Cracking”). This makes for highly predictable results, and artificially easy competition for an incumbent. Manipulated districts take on unnatural shapes, like starfish or, in the case of 19th century Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry and democracy distorting namesake, the salamander.

While Minnesota is far from the worst offender when it comes to gerrymandering, the fact that it’s nearly impossible for a Democrat to win in Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 6th District, or likewise a Republican to win in Rep. Keith Ellison’s 5th, shows that our state, too, could make elections more competitive and better representative of the natural constituency of an area.

The 2010 census is likely to show that Minnesota’s eight congressional districts need to be reduced, and thus redesigned, to seven because our population isn’t growing as fast as other states. We believe the state Legislature should move to adopt a proposal by a commission headed by former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson to take the politics out of redistricting. Their plan would put a panel of five retired judges who have never received a partisan endorsement in charge of drawing fair, competitive districts and submitting their plan to the Legislature for approval. Right now, the Legislature designs its own districts, in effect picking its own constituents, or failing that – which happened in 2002 – it goes to the courts.

Because this will make state legislators and U.S. Representatives’ re-election prospects less secure, we can see why they may not rush to support the plan, but we hold out hope that they will choose what’s best for the state and the our democracy and adopt a more honest system.