Monday, June 07, 2010

The Future of Redistricting Reform

Heather K. Gerken

Last week, the Columbus Dispatch reported that while redistricting reform efforts were stymied in the state legislature, Ohio was well on its way to choosing the official state amphibian. Needless to say, it's a bad sign when a reform cause ranks below salamanders on the legislative agenda. The story was just the latest illustration of how hard it is to get redistricting reform passed. The central problem with redistricting reform is that the people who know the most about the issue and care the most about the issue . . . are the politicians who oppose it.

I just posted a paper that focuses on strategies for getting redistricting reform passed. Typically, academics and reformers try to take the politics out of election regulation by pushing for a nonpartisan districting process. Nonpartisan districting is surely a noble cause and a perfectly sensible long-term goal. But we have allowed that instinct for nonpartisanship to shape our short and medium-term strategies for achieving reform.

That is a mistake. Ours is a system where the foxes are guarding the henhouse, where legislators set the rules of the game at the same time they play it. Needless to say, they are loathe to give up this power. Yet most reform strategies turn on asking politicians to ignore their own interests and do the right thing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these strategies have not produced much by way of results.

If we are interested in getting reform passed, we have to do something more than appeal to self-interested political actors to ignore their self-interest. We need to realign the incentives of the foxes with those of the hens, to redirect competitive political energies into healthier channels. For those interested in reform, the paper offers concrete proposals for doing so and surveys the cutting-edge work in this area.

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