Gerrymandering nixes opportunity for regional collaboration

12. 9. 2011 |  ”It used to be that the idea was, once every two years voters elected their representatives, and now, instead, it’s every ten years the representatives choose their constituents.” Ah, gerrymandering. That quote by Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan pretty much sums it up. And it’s time once again.

Unfortunately, gerrymandering–or the more polite “redistricting”– seldom serves the best interests of the constituents. It does, however, offer a lesson of why metropolitan regionalism struggles to take root.

Cities, BRR Network member Hal Wolman has found, are historically underrepresented in Congress. The share of congressional districts situated in central cities rarely matches the share of people living in them. In Changes in Central-City Representation and Influence in Congress Since the 1960s,” [behind Sage Publications' pay wall], Wolman and coauthor Lisa Marckini discovered that in 1993, only 21.4% of congressional districts were primarily urban while 28.2% of Americans were living in central cities. Meanwhile, the power of suburban districts grew enormously. Between the 1950s and the mid-1990s, “Congress has changed from an institution that largely reflected nonmetropolitan interests to one that is now [in 1994] thoroughly dominated by suburban representatives.”

The power shift to the suburbs was no surprise, as population moved ever-outward from the central city. But a lot has changed since 1993–namely that the distinctions between central city and the suburbs is blurring. We are increasingly a metropolitan nation.

To wit: Large metro areas together accounted for over three-fourths of the nation’s growth between 2000 and 2010. The population in the 100 largest metro regions (cities and suburbs combined) grew 10.5% between 2000 and 2009, according to “The State of Metropolitan America” compared with 2.7% growth outside of metro areas.

Along with this growth comes a blurring of city/suburban distinctions.  Today, traditional economic distinctions are disappearing as nearly half of all metropolitan jobs now lie at least 10 miles from the downtown core. In turn, as more people follow the jobs outward, according to Brookings Institution demographer Alan Berube, the profile of “suburban” has blurred well. As we’ve reported before, poverty is suburbanizing, as is immigration, and suburbs are increasingly diverse.

Part of the fast metro growth during the last decade was driven by new hot markets, like Cape Coral, Florida, or Phoenix and Las Vegas. People flocked not only to these regions, but cheap mortgages and a building boom found them living farther and farther from the central city. Drive through Fort Myers, Florida, and the housing developments spread outward nearly all the way to Port Charlotte.

The recession and housing market crash would put the kibosh on that tendency to sprawl. In fact, there’s been a sharp retrenchment toward the center since. Growth in primary cities in metro areas accelerating between 2006 to 2008, just as suburban population growth slowed, according the “State of Metropolitan America.”

Gerrymandering frequently manipulates (or ignores) these population and demographic shifts in its race to stack the decks in favor of one political party or another. Take Salt Lake City, for example, as the New York Times outlines. It and its neighbor, Provo, were among the high-growth metro regions in the nation for much of the 2000s. (Provo’s population grew by nearly one-third between 2000 and 2008). That growth earned Utah another congressional seat, in fact. Yet as politicians scheme to redraw the map from three congressional districts to four, Salt Lake City is on the verge of being tethered to a largely rural constituency rather than to its suburban neighbors. As the Times reports:

Salt Lake City’s mayor, Ralph Becker, said he worried that whoever was elected to represent the district would be torn between the needs of the urban and rural areas, which are sometimes at odds. Salt Lake County has been expanding its mass transit system and trying to protect its watershed, Mr. Becker said, while many rural areas are pushing for more highway money and for fewer restrictions on the use of federal land.

“We now are combined with areas that have virtually no relationship to our issues,” Mr. Becker said.

In Toledo, the Times reports, the mayor worried about losing clout in Washington if the city were split up and forged with suburbs and had to constantly weigh “the competing needs of different areas.”

The Times implicitly is asking, Does sharing the district dilute the voice for urban areas when representatives must balance the needs of different, sometimes opposing, needs? They seem to come down on the “yes” side of the ledger. But in an email exchange with me, Hal Wolman thought the question should be recast:

“Would you rather have a smaller number of representatives whose constituency consists of 100% city residents or a larger number whose constituency consists of 65% city residents and 44% suburban?  I bet you would get more votes for city interests from the latter situation, even though you might get more voice from the former.  From a broader perspective, I think one needs to ask whether there’d be more understanding among legislators and a willingness to compromise when representatives have a diverse constituency rather than a homogeneous one.  Maybe you would get less gridlock out of the diverse one.”

There is also the question, is this age-old issue of “us vs. them” helpful? Is pitting one artificially drawn area against another the route to efficiency? And do these districts really have “virtually no relationship” to one another, as Becker put it?

Issues such as transit, housing, and education, once the domain of a local jurisdiction, are increasingly metropolitan-wide issues, not suburban versus urban (and sometimes not even rural vs. urban). As the distinctions between suburban and city fade, these pressing issues can be more readily addressed at a regional level of governance. Yet politics remain divvyed up. When politics, and with it governance, is fragmented, it weakens the whole (which technically is the point of gerrymandering, at least as far as getting elected goes).

It seems that leaders at all levels of governing must now more than ever understand and cooperate on the social and economic issues they increasingly share. A fragmented approach to solutions depletes the shrinking pot of funds even faster, after all.

As Brookings’ Alan Berube noted in his analysis of the growing convergence of city and suburb, “we no longer need an exclusively city or suburban perspective, but rather a metropolitan approach to managing America’s continuing demographic transformation.” If only politicians would realize that diversity is good, and that collaboration across jurisdictions–not pitting one against the other– is the solution to shared regional challenges.

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