OP-ED: Illinois Redistricting Reform is a Silly Waste of Time

(Chicago) – OP-ED: The great tent revival known as redistricting reform has come back to Illinois.

Like a tent revival, there’s a lot of excitement and preaching. There’s also prayer – which is the only way it’s going to pass here.

Mostly there’s a lot of talking about various social ills that have nothing to do with partisan redistricting and boil down to “Mike Madigan gives me a sad.”

Now, there’s nothing particularly bad about nonpartisan redistricting. A few states- Iowa, Arizona, California- practice it and are none the worse for wear for it. And frankly I should support it just out of professional self-interest: more competitive general elections means more potential business for me.

But cranky opposition researchers maybe getting more money is not a public good. In fact, if there is any public good redistricting reform serves, no one has discovered it yet.

Reform advocates typically trot out three motivations for their cause: corruption, polarization and constituent service. Let’s have a look at why each of them is nonsensical:

Corruption: My good friend and colleague Nick Daggers led into this subject with a recent column supporting Yes for Independent Maps:

The Chicago Sun Times recently reported an investigation by the FBI of Chicago Alderman Joe Moore (49th Ward) for firing an employee, who had allegedly complained about political work being done in Moore’s aldermanic office, which is city property.

The Moore probe adds to Illinois’ abundance of ethical lapses and failure in the conduct of Illinois political business.

However, the cumulative weight of political scandal over the recent years may have finally reached its tipping point, begging the question: Will the alleged political corruption of reformer Moore be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back?

And I guess that would be relevant – if Joe Moore had a safe seat. He doesn’t. Yes, he had no opposition to speak of in 2011, and won by a big margin. But in 2007 he crawled to an embarrassing 251 vote win in the runoff, and that was with $165,000 in in-kind support from SEIU. He’s a great guy if you’re a fan of geese, but he is lousy at campaigning and it shows. Moore isn’t corrupt (if labeling mail in the wrong office is what you’d call “corrupt”) because he has a safe seat. He’s just bad at his job.

I asked Nick about this and he clarified:

[L]ess competitive districts lead to higher levels of corruption. Look at the members of the US House recently convicted in federal court; Jesse Jr, Duke Cunningham, William Jefferson, Dan Rostenkowski, etc. All of these members came from safe districts.

Okay, let’s look at those convicted officials:

Dan Rostenkowski: Defeated by Republican Michael Flanagan (after a primary failed to dislodge him over his ethics issues)

William Jefferson: Defeated by Republican Joseph Cao (after a primary failed to dislodge him over his ethics issues)

Duke Cunningham: Resigned from Congress; subsequent election barely won by Republican Brian Bilbray, with 49 percent of the vote

Jesse Jackson Jr: Resigned from Congress; replaced by Democrat Robin Kelly who easily dispatched Republican opposition

See a pattern here? In all but one case the corrupt incumbent was either replaced by the opposing party, or the incumbent party barely held the seat. These examples aren’t arguments for redistricting reform. They’re arguments that the two-party system works! It turns out that if someone isn’t dissuaded from corruption by, like, jail, s/he also won’t flinch at losing reelection.

And that’s setting aside the fact that Jefferson and Jackson Jr held majority-minority districts, which are mandated by the Voting Rights Act. A lot of these “safe seats” are here to stay, till Republicans can convince black people to vote for them or the VRA goes away.

So nonpartisan redistricting wouldn’t do anything in particular about corruption. That brings us to the next leg of this particularly wobbly stool:

Polarization: This is a favorite for explaining why the U.S. Congress can’t ever seem to get its act together. It’s also shoehorned into Illinois redistricting, thusly:

When incumbents are challenged, it’s more likely to be by extreme ideologues in their own party than centrist candidates from the opposition. Inevitably, politics is further polarized and the opportunity for compromise irretrievably lost beyond sensible lawmakers’ reach.

This claim is pretty silly. First of all, Democrats have a double-super majority in Illinois. They don’t need to compromise on anything! The state isn’t polarized, it’s lopsided. That might be the map’s fault, or it might be because the Republican party chair just had to resign for suggesting we treat gay people like normal humans. But either way, polarization implies, like, poles. Illinois doesn’t have those. We’re a Democratic state, and yet everything is still pretty lousy.

The state isn’t in gridlock because Democrats aren’t working with Republicans. It’s not working because Democrats just suck. 

And at any rate, the argument doesn’t even work for Congress. The primary driver towards moderation isn’t competitive districts, it’s misalignment. Misalignment is when a district has a lot of voters in one party but inexplicably votes for an incumbent from another party. So of course the incumbent is going to be pretty moderate. Don’t take my word for it, look at a real study on it:

Competitive seats also tend to elect members of Congress who are slightly more to the middle than the average member of Congress in their party. A small drop in competitive seats will likely lead to a small amount of additional polarization with fewer moderate members.

[…]Misaligned seats produced the most moderate members of Congress. Members of the House who represented constituents who voted strongly for presidents of the opposing party made up a large fraction of the moderate members. The continued decline of these types of seats will mean fewer moderate voices in Congress.

General election competition has an effect on incumbent behavior, but a small one. More significant is the fact that voters used to be okay splitting their votes, and now they…aren’t. Chalk it up to legacy Democrats dying, or voters being more informed, or a black president freaking people out. The misaligned seats are going away, and it’s not a result of partisan redistricting.

So nonpartisan redistricting won’t reduce corruption, and it won’t bring back the great age of moderation either. And that leaves one last bit of nonsense for the advocates:

Constituent service: The idea is that primary voters don’t particularly care what their incumbent does, so the incumbent can be as lazy as s/he pleases with regards to town halls, answering letters from crazy people and so forth. As Nick said in our debate over the remap initiative:

Competitive districts do force representatives to provide better constituent services and are forced to be more responsive to the voters that elect them.

This is pretty funny, and not just because there’s no evidence that Iowa Rep. Steve King (who got a nonpartisan-drawn district, and is coincidentally pretty crazy) is any better at answering constituent mail than Illinois Rep. Danny Davis.

No, the funny part is that constituent service is incumbent protection by any other name. An incumbent can do it, a challenger cannot. Here, look at term limit advocates yelling about it:

With the increased use of regional offices, more personal staff are working on constituent service in districts. In 1972, 23 percent of personal House staff worked in district or state offices; by 1994 that number had grown to 47 percent. [22] To allow members themselves to more frequently discuss matters with constituents face to face, Congress has steadily increased the number of paid trips that a member may take to his district. Table 2 chronicles that trend.

Why have members spent increasing amounts of time on constituent service? The answer is twofold. First, the expansion of the federal government during the past 60 years, and the resulting bureaucratic problems that many constituents face, has undoubtedly made constituent service increasingly necessary. [23] Second, many incumbents have found that constituent service is an excellent way to bolster their reelection prospects.

So, redistricting reform will create more competitive districts by forcing incumbents to provide more constituent service, which will…create fewer competitive districts?

Redistricting reform won’t make Illinois any better. It’s not going to make Mike Madigan go away, pass pension reform, put more or less money into [thing that you like/hate]. It won’t clear prisons of elected officials, and it’s certainly not going to get your emails to whatever official answered any faster.

But it will mean more ads between Labor Day and November. And if that’s the sort of thing you want, then go right ahead.

I salute you for the additional business.