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Could Redistricting Improve Competition And Legislature?

Hartford Courant Editorial

December 19, 2010

When the state adopted public financing of political campaigns five years ago, one of its promises was that it would create more competitive legislative elections. Prior to passage of the law, upward of 40 percent of legislative elections usually were uncontested by major party candidates.

The campaign finance law helped, somewhat. In 2006, the last election before the law took effect, 62 of 151 House elections were uncontested, as were nine of 36 Senate races. This year, 40 House races and seven Senate races were uncontested. In addition, another 47 House races and 16 Senate races, by our count, were contested but not competitive, meaning that the losing candidate received less than 40 percent of the vote. So even with finance reform, fewer than half of the state's legislative races were in serious play.

Uncontested or uncompetitive races discourage people from voting, inhibit the influx of new talent and reduce accountability of those in office. Could we do better?

Perhaps the place to look is an area that was once hugely controversial redistricting, the decennial process of readjusting political boundaries to create close-to-equal districts. The process will begin for the second time in this century after the 2010 census results are reported this spring.

Connecticut's legislative and congressional boundaries are drawn by a committee of legislators. A dozen states now use an outside panel to create new districts. Would that create a more robust legislature here?

Possibly.

How It's Done

Connecticut had one of the country's most malapportioned legislatures in the country in the 1960s when landmark "one person, one vote" decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court spurred change. Reapportionment took the better part of a decade, featuring major lawsuits and the unprecedented cancellation of the 1964 General Assembly election.

In the system that finally evolved (now part of the state Constitution), the Senate president pro tem, the speaker of the House and the minority party leaders of both chambers must, by Feb. 15 in the year after the census, appoint two members (usually including themselves and fellow legislators) to the Reapportionment Committee. The eight solons must draw district plans for the state House and Senate as well as the state's congressional seats.

The plan must be approved by at least two-thirds of the members of both chambers by Sept. 15. If the deadline isn't met, and it usually isn't, the governor must appoint eight members designated by the same four legislative leaders usually but not always the same people to a Reapportionment Commission. The eight members must then select a ninth, and tie-breaking, member. The commission must develop redistricting plans and submit them to the secretary of the state by Nov. 30, at which point the plan has the force of law. Should that deadline be missed, it goes to the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Divvying Up The Districts

Supporters of the system say that it gets the job done, and because the decision is made by the legislature and not the governor, it is less partisan than it might be. "We put the all the foxes in the henhouse and let them fight it out," a former staffer said.

But they aren't foxes for nothing. Observers such as Judge Robert Satter, author of "Under The Golden Dome," a well-regarded book about the legislature, say that with the introduction of sophisticated software, legislative leaders of both parties have become adept at shaping districts that protect incumbent seats. Some former participants in the process say both parties try to lock up incumbent seats and then fight about the rest of them.

Also, the process is a source of power to legislative leaders. A legislator who crosses the bosses could end up with a new and less promising district, come the next election. Legislators who retire in a redistricting year sometimes see their old districts carved like Sunday's pot roast.

Since the reapportionment battles of four decades ago, the legislature has trended heavily Democratic. Would an outside panel of, say, retired judges change that outcome? Possibly, again, although the state's demography still favors the status quo.

The Democrats hold the large cities and nothing is likely to change that in the immediate future. And as former city residents have moved to surrounding suburbs, many of these suburban towns have turned Democratic. Also, because redistricters have to consider a number of factors, from town lines and "communities of interest" to voting rights of racial minorities and "political fairness," it's unlikely district lines will change radically.

That inevitably leaves many incumbents in office, and incumbency is powerful a strong incumbent can usually overcome a slight change in district lines. Also, nothing says an outside panel wouldn't be politically motivated, if it weren't chosen with extreme care.

Toward Greater Competition

Yet, nearly half the state's 2 million-plus voters are unaffiliated. Though party affiliation doesn't always reflect voter turnout, it still seems theoretically possible to design districts that are at least somewhat more competitive.

Perhaps the way to do it is for civic groups such as the League of Women Voters and others, along with college classes and individuals, to follow the process closely this year. The entire legislative process could benefit from more public access; this would be a place to start. In 2001, most of the attention was on the elimination of a congressional district; that is not expected to happen in 2011.

The state Office of Legislative Research is scheduled to have a public website up before May 1 on this year's redistricting process. Follow it. Use the software. See if we can have a more competitive legislature.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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