Lowenthal: Baseball stadiums don't make the rules

Civic groups are calling for the formation of Civic groups are calling for the formation of a redistricting commission as they rally in Mineola on the steps of the Nassau County Executive Building. (Jan. 27, 2014) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

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Can you imagine a baseball game where every stadium had its own rules? Now imagine that the rules are not just set by the home team, but that the home team players are also the umpires. This is what is happening in nearly every state in the nation when it comes to drawing congressional district maps.

The U.S. House's 435 congressional districts must be reapportioned every 10 years following the decennial census. Redistricting must comply with the one-person-one-vote criteria and relevant provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Many states also have additional guidelines, such as attempting to ensure compact and contiguous districts.

However, redistricting in most states, including Pennsylvania, provides the opportunity for the political manipulation of district maps, and thus elections, by allowing incumbent politicians to choose their voters before the voters actually choose them. The process allows political parties - often the majority party in the state at the time - to stack the electoral deck in favor of partisan allies, to punish political enemies, and to keep certain communities from being effectively represented.

Some states have implemented fairer processes, but most continue to use redistricting to solidify the majority party's grasp on power. In addition, the few states that have introduced reforms vary greatly, causing further inconsistencies in the way districts are drawn.

In short, there are no national standards for redistricting. In nearly all states, state politicians still retain the oversight, participation, or outright control of the process.

For instance, many states allow their legislature to draw and then approve districts. Others use commissions appointed by their legislatures to draw the maps, but then the legislature must approve the commission's work. Elsewhere, independent commissions draw the lines.

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Gerrymandering to favor one party or candidate results in districts with strange and incoherent shapes that cover vast areas in order to obtain the desired combination of voters. That is unfair and undemocratic. Look at North Carolina's 4th District: a long narrow shape, with jagged edges, that reaches out in three divergent directions, strategically packing together multiple urban areas and college towns. This district was drawn solely to ensure that the state's majority party maintains its electoral advantage, and without direct input or oversight from the voters.

I believe there is a growing consensus for a fair and consistent way to redraw congressional districts, one that is also transparent, accountable and democratic. That's why I introduced the "Let the People Draw the Lines Act." My bill would create national standards and use independent citizen commissions to draw the maps in each state. This approach mirrors legislation I proposed while in the state Senate of California, which eventually became the template for the ballot propositions that created California's citizen-redistricting commissions after the 2010 census.

An independent commission will not eliminate all political considerations from the process, but removing control from those who benefit directly is an essential element of reform and has the potential to end gerrymandering as we know it.

This redistricting legislation was the first one I offered as a member of Congress. I wanted my first bill to be something I believed in - something that I know would improve our democracy and rebuild people's trust in government. In the current political climate, we can certainly stand to gain from more trust from the public.

The "Let the People Draw the Lines Act" does exactly what the title says: It would give citizens in every state the ability to transparently draw their own congressional districts based on rules that preserve the boundaries of their towns and their communities. It provides clear and uniform criteria that would give all communities a fair and equal voice in a redistricting process that is transparent and open to the public - the way it should be.

If my bill, or similar legislation, becomes law, political gerrymandering will finally become a closed chapter in our nation's journey toward a more perfect democracy.

Americans deserve true representation. It is time for politicians to give up their control of the redistricting process and let the people draw the lines.

Alan Lowenthal is a Democratic congressman representing California's 47th District.

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