Drawing Representative Districts

A version of this article originally appeared in STAND Magazine, a publication for ACLU members and supporters.

FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY, “one person, one vote” has been essential to American representative democracy. Key to preserving equal representation is redistricting, occurring most broadly every 10 years. The decennial census records population changes, which states must reflect in legislative districts to make the democratic process fair.

But in many states this is a highly partisan process that is not always fair or in voters’ interests, says Laughlin McDonald, ACLU special counsel, who has fought voter suppression for decades. “Somewhere down the line they may consider the interest of the voters, but that’s not really what drives the process,” he says.

Without Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, states are now free, without federal oversight, to make election-related changes that could adversely affect racial and language minorities.

The battle for voting rights never ends.

The battle for fair and proper districts is a major undertaking, and the ACLU is leading the way.

ACLU efforts include supporting the creation of impartial and independent redistricting commissions. The organization's efforts were victorious in July of 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled Arizona citizens were free to use a ballot initiative to take the redistricting process out of the hands of legislators. The ACLU filed a brief in the case, defending the constitutionality of such commissions. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg referenced the brief in her opinion in the case.

"We're already in the middle of a decade, and we're still fighting over the district lines," says ACLU Voting Rights Project Director Dale Ho, referring to pending 2010 legal action. "The battle never ends."

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The key is to get rid of congressional districts altogether. There is no constitutional basis for their existence. Removing districts would enable proportional representation to determine the composition of our congressional districts.


For a mid-sized state with 3-7 districts, an intriguing proposal would be to use statewide STV to elect congressman.


You don't have to get rid of districts - you can have single-winner districts and use larger regions to elect proportionally allocated "top-up" candidates. This system is known as mixed-member representation and works pretty well in countries like Germany and New Zealand. A well thought-out proposal for how to implement such a system in the context of California can be found here: digitalcommons.lmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=llr


In any case, futzing around with "nonpartisan" districting is a stopgap at best, and an energy-sapping distraction at worst. Voting system reforms could mitigate or even eliminate the problem, but it seems abundantly apparent that we simply don't know which system will best serve our interests -- or indeed, if one voting regime will best serve all states. California isn't Kansas; New York isn't New Mexico. Might some states benefit from PR, and others (such as the geographically larger states) benefit from single-member systems? November 2016 left most Americans disappointed; now would be a great time for states and municipalities to experiment with deep reform measures. Certainly, try for a VRA extension that curtails the worst abuses...but a 50-state chose-your-own-voting-reform strategy might give us the information we need to make better decisions for the long term.

Steve Chessin

It would be good to see the ACLU support H.R.3057, the Fair Representation Act, that would require states with five or fewer representatives to elect them statewide using the single transferable vote (STV) (or instant runoff voting if they only have one representative), and states with six or more representatives to group them in districts of 3, 4, or 5 members each, and use STV in each of those multi-member districts. See https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3057 for details.

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