Editorial by John Ziegler

646,000 Citizens and One Vote

1/11/2002

Congressional redistricting, the most partisan of all political endeavors, is finally coming to a controversial, albeit merciful, end. It is now more evident than ever that the entire system is in need of radical reconstruction.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans, who control every governing body in the state, have seemingly carved out a way to greatly expand their narrow majority in the state's congressional delegation despite losing two representatives because of stagnant population growth. Democrats, who would be behaving in exactly the same selfish manner if they had won enough votes in prior elections to get the opportunity, are crying foul and threatening a lawsuit while claiming that the southeastern section of the state will lose significant clout (i.e., the ability to harvest "pork" spending) in upcoming congresses.

What has been lost in all this acrimony is that EVERY citizen of this country is drastically and needlessly losing his say in the House of Representatives. Congress was originally and brilliantly set up so that the House would be beholden to the voting populace because each representative would be elected by a relatively small number of people and would face reelection on a regular basis (though it is doubtful the Founders anticipated yearlong campaigns for a two-year term).

The Constitution requires only that there be no more than one representative for every 30,000 citizens. The original Congress of 65 members each represented an average of about 60,000 Americans. In 1920, when the House was expanded to its current 435 members, that number was 242,000. As of the next election, we will have a staggering 646,000 citizens for every one vote in the House of Representatives (689,000 in Pa.).

While state legislatures tend to do a remarkable, though self serving, job of getting all the districts in their state to be virtually equal in population, there are still some disturbing potential violations of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment upon which the U.S. Supreme Court relied in deciding the 2000 election in favor of President Bush.

For instance, in the last Congress (based on the 1990 census), each Pennsylvania congressman represented about 565,000 people, which was almost exactly the average for the entire country. However, Delaware's lone member represented 725,000 people, while Montana had an astounding 879,000 citizens for its one congressman. At the other end of the spectrum, Wyoming's congressman spoke for just 481,000 people.

When looked at in terms of "voters" instead of "citizens" the numbers are even more amazing. Delaware, Montana and South Dakota all had well over 300,000 people vote for Congress in the last election. Meanwhile, some districts in other states registered just over 100,000 votes for the same office in the year of the closest Presidential election ever.

Interestingly, Democrats seemed to have done a much "better" job in 1990 setting up the districts to their advantage, at least locally. In Pennsylvania, there were an average of 227,000 voters in districts where the Republican won and only 203,000 voters in places where the Democrat was victorious. In New Jersey, Democratic districts had an average of just 201,000 people come to the polls, while an incredible 258,000 voted in areas where the Republican won.

Switching the basis for reapportionment from census figures to voting numbers may make a lot of sense. Census estimates are notoriously inaccurate and biased, and establishing the number of representatives of each state on the number of people who actually vote would certainly seem to provide an incentive for increased participation.

Other alterations to our system should also be considered. If the number of representatives in the House were doubled, I believe that the benefits would be dramatic. Instantly, 435 new and, at least temporarily, uncorrupted citizens would descend on Washington injecting a stagnant process with badly needed fresh blood.

Simultaneously, the campaign finance mess in this country would be largely neutralized without violating our First Amendment rights. Because each, now rather feckless, congressman would individually be of little use to lobbyists and big donors, logic would dictate contributions to the vast majority of candidates would exponentially decrease.

Also, because the amount of territory that each newly formed district would be sliced roughly in half, the nature of congressional campaigns would become once again far more personal affairs and not so prohibitively expensive. Locally for instance, Upper and Lower Bucks County (which share very little philosophically and almost no common media) would each get their own district and Montgomery County could stand alone instead of being splintered into several different districts.

The doubling of congressional districts would also alleviate some of the inequity inherent in the process by providing state legislatures more flexibility in how they draw the lines, which could then be redrawn by computer along county boarders every ten years. By providing an extra "odd" representative to be added or subtracted during each reapportionment, states on the borderline would not feel such a powerful impact for small shifts in population. This would also provide the Electoral College with a formula for deciding Presidential elections that would be based far more on population than is currently the case.

Will any of this happen? Of course not. It would require congressional representatives to vote to decrease their own power. The reality that is prospect is a virtual impossibility is proof of just how much this sort of drastic change is truly needed.

source:<a href="http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/2002/01/23/opinion/pa/SCZIEG23.htm">The way that this column appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer</a>

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