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The Stakes in November

New Hampshire Voters Crop

We’re about two weeks from another set of elections. As always, lots of attention is on the President, and whether the midterms will serve as a referendum (positive or negative) on his policies or behavior. But the President isn’t actually on the ballot. Members of Congress are, and so are state senators and representatives, county commissioners and city council members.

These legislators set policy on the economy, the environment, international affairs, domestic security, health care, taxes, education, transportation, zoning, and thousands of other topics that affect our lives in ways big and small. The elections that we have for those officials are the way that we build the world we live in together.

Which means that if you care about any of those issues, or any other matters of public policy, then what you really care about are the district lines that define how those legislators are elected.

And that all starts with the Census.

District lines define the groups of voters who are eligible to elect individual representatives. The people in district 1 elect the representative from district 1, and so on. When the lines for district 1 change, so does the constituency driving the next election.

We used to have district lines that were just made up of groups of towns or counties. In California in 1960, Los Angeles County made up one district, where the state Senator represented 6,380,771 people. Mono, Inyo, and Alpine Counties made up another district — and their Senator represented just 14,294 people.  A third of the population controlled more than two-thirds of the representation. Something wasn’t right.

A few years later, the Supreme Court confirmed that the Constitution protected the principle of equal representation: one representative for equal numbers of people.  When we find out where the people are, we then adjust our districts so that there are about the same number of people in each one.

The way that we find out where the people are is the Census. It’s impossible to overstate its importance. The mandate to conduct an “actual Enumeration” of the population, once per decade, is embedded in the sixth sentence of the Constitution. Because that equal representation principle drives representation in the US House of Representatives, counting the people to be represented is the very first act that the Constitution expressly gives to the brand-new federal government.  

The count comes before the election of representatives and the selection of legislative process; it comes before the power to coin and collect and borrow money; it comes before the responsibility to establish defense forces and to declare and wage war;  it comes before the conduct of foreign relations and the establishment of a judiciary. The Census is, quite literally, job one.

Maps of California Senate Districts: 2001 (Left) and redrawn 2011 (Right).
Maps of California Senate Districts: 2001 (Left) and redrawn 2011 (Right).

We take a Census every ten years. Once we have the results, we redraw district lines to make sure there are about the same number of people in each district.  The next Census is in 2020; we’ll redraw districts — federal, state, and local districts — in 2021.

There’s plenty of controversy around the Census this time around, due to some political gamesmanship.  But it’s never been more important for every person in the country to respond when the Census comes calling.  

We have the chance to stand up in another sense as well.  The elections in two weeks will drive policy, but in most of the country, they’ll also drive the terms of representation itself.  That’s because in most of the country, legislators draw the lines of their own districts.

To many people, that seems like an obvious conflict of interest. We are the only Western democracy that lets legislators draw their own lines. Politicians choose their voters, rather than the other way around. Some American jurisdictions have seen the light. California voters passed a citizens’ initiative that puts state and federal lines in the hands of an independent commission, standing apart from incumbents and party operatives. Los Angeles County will do something similar. But in most of the country, the legislators are charge of district boundaries.

Town Hall meeting for election in Kern County
Town Hall meeting discussing the upcoming election

This means that the upcoming elections will impact the country’s course not only for the next few years, but given the control of district lines, for the next decade.  

Many of the officials in charge of drawing both federal and state districts in 2021 will be elected in two weeks. In 26 states, thousands of legislators with four-year terms drive the redistricting process … and are up for election in two weeks. In 25 states, governors with four-year terms can veto those legislators … and they, too, are up for election in two weeks. And even officials who are elected for two-year terms will head into 2020 with a sizable incumbents’ advantage if they win election this year.

Representatives drive policy. District lines drive representation. The upcoming elections, and the Census to follow, drive district lines.  

The fight for the next decade has already begun.

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