Electoral redistricting in California and the US

It truly seems bizarre to Australian commentators that US state legislatures can draw their own electoral boundaries; the boundaries for State Senate districts in the Los Angeles area are very unusual to Australian eyes indeed!

One of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s apparent goals as newly reinugurated Californian Governor is to ensure that the electoral boundaries for the Californian legislature are redrawn in a non-gerrymandered way. Many media reports (eg here) suggest that the boundaries are spectacularly gerrymandered; of course it is standard practise in the US for state legislatures to draw electoral boundaries themselves; it is extremely unusual for independent committees to draw them as has been standard practise in Australia for many decades now.

The effect of state legislatures drawing their own electoral boundaries (and those of their congressional districts) is that part of the “game itself” (the electoral districts) is in play in the political game. There have been media reports of Californian districts being redrawn to benefit or detriment certain legislators or potential legislators (I can’t find a link now but I remember reading about this in the California state legislature.)

It is entirely conceivable that a party gaining control of the legislature in one election could redraw the boundaries to dramatically favour themselves and keep on winning the legislature on less than a majority of the vote, if they are fortunate enough to be able to so redraw the boundaries.

It is certainly the case that state legislatures redraw boundaries in the interests of the party controlling the legislature (eg the famous case of the Texas legislature, controlled by Republicans, redrawing the congressional districts to favour Republicans a few years ago – see here for a report on the Supreme Court ruling on the redistricting). Also, relatively recently the Pennsylvanian legislature redrew Pennsylvanian congressional districts to favour the Republicans, and no doubt umpteen other examples exist. (I recall reading that two districts in an Atlantic state were redrawn for the recent Congressional elections to make re-election harder for the two incumbent Democratic congressmen.)

Part of the solution to this is to take the state legislatures out of the process. A non-gerrymandered set of boundaries is more likely to produce a legislature that reflects the actual way that people voted. To me, this is an important element of representative democracy employing electoral districts, and it’s in some sense astonishing that blatant gerrymandering occurs in the US in the 21st century.

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