Sunday, July 24, 2016

Gerrymanding Must Be Abolished

It's a presidential election year and it has already proven to be one of the most bizarre elections in living memory. I know for whom I'm going to cast my vote in November, but haven't decided if I'm going to mention it in my blog. I'm not a member of any political party, nor do I fit the generally accepted definition of either a liberal or a conservative. When anyone asks me to define my political views, I usually reply that I am a 21st Century Jeffersonian. So I don't think I will be posting blog pieces that support or oppose Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, though I reserve the right to change my mind later on.

I don't want to ignore the election altogether, though, so I have decided to write about various proposed election reforms that I think are urgently, even critically, needed here in the United States. I personally feel that election reform on all levels of government is the single greatest issue facing America today, for the lack of such reform has been the root cause of our national inability to deal with the great challenges such as climate change or the national debt. The media, ever the guardians of the status quo, rarely bring the subject up, because the last thing they want to see is substantial change in the way politics works in America. Unfortunately, unless we can enact such reforms in the very near future, I fear for the survival of ultimate survival of democracy in our nation.

Today, I'm going to write about what I think is the most urgently needed measure: the abolition of gerrymandering.

The principle of government in a republic is that the voters choose their legislators. In most of modern America, however, we are faced with the absurd reality that legislators choose their voters. This is due to the process known as gerrymandering, by which the majority party in a state legislature draws the lines of congressional districts in such a way as to pack as many voters who support the opposition party into as few districts as possible. This has the effect of maximizing the number of districts their party will win and minimizing the numbers of districts the opposition will win, regardless of the actual difference in the number of votes each party gains. In pursuit of partisan advantage, absurd district shapes are created, usually taking no account of such things as natural borders or keeping communities such as towns or cities within the same legislative district.

Gerrymandering is not a new invention. During elections for the very first Congress in 1788, Patrick Henry tried to gerrymander James Madison out of a congressional seat in Virginia (thankfully, Henry was unsuccessful). Indeed, the very term "gerrymander" comes from Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts in the early 19th Century who used the gerrymandering of his political enemies as a standard tactic. But the fact that it has been done for a long time is no justification for its continuation, for partisan redistricting is blatantly undemocratic and should be abolished as soon as possible.

Because of gerrymandering, the vast majority of congressional districts in America have become extremely skewed towards one of the two major political parties, usually by a ratio of around 70% to 30%. This means that if a person is unfortunate enough to be a Republican in a Democratic district or a Democrat in a Republican district, he or she has no real representation. A member of Congress who represents such a district can safely ignore the concerns of a constituent who supports the opposition party and suffer no electoral punishment for doing so. A reasonable case can be made for the idea that the majority of Americans are not genuinely represented in Congress at all. In that case, we might fairly ask whether America is really a republic anymore.

Another negative consequence of partisan redistricting is that a shockingly large number of representatives face no competition on election day. Since the minority party in a gerrymandered district sees little chance of victory, they often decide it is not worth the effort and resources to contest the election and either don't run a candidate at all or simply put up a token candidate who they know stands no chance. This means that the incumbent need not fear the judgment of the people, and can act in ways that would otherwise get him thrown out of office by his constituents. The easier it is for an incumbent to remain in office, the less attention he needs to pay to the wishes of his constituents, thus degrading the very principles of representative democracy.

Gerrymandering also contributes to voter apathy. Seeing the incumbent win reelection over and over again, citizens often see little or no value in casting their vote on election day. Why bother, when the outcome has already been settled ahead of time by the gerrymandering process? Even worse, since a representative in a heavily gerrymandered district is more likely to have to worry about a challenger from his or her own party in a primary election than a challenger from the other party in a general election, office-holders are pushed into more extreme positions, with Republicans increasingly moving to the far right and Democrats to the far left. This increases partisan gridlock and rancor in Congress, making it more difficult for the two parties to compromise on important issues and alienating the moderate voters, who have no one for whom to vote.

The essence of any democracy is that the wishes of the people form the basis for the actions of the government. Through gerrymandering, however, partisan factions can achieve decisive political power even if the majority of the people do not want them to have it. Gerrymandering stifles political debate and allows incumbents to be free from the threat of defeat by their constituents. In most years, well over 90% of incumbent members of Congress win reelection, even though polls suggest that less than 20% of the people approve of the job Congress is doing. For a country that is supposed to be a vibrant democracy, this is ridiculous.

I've been speaking about the gerrymandering problem in terms of Congress, but it is equally detrimental to democracy in terms of drawing the district lines for state legislative races, where precisely the same problems apply on a more local scale. Indeed, incumbency is perhaps an even bigger problem in state legislative races than in congressional races, since the constituents are ironically less likely to have information their representative due to lack of media coverage. Most people, frankly, are hard-pressed to name their congressman, let alone their state legislator, which is a state of affairs the office-holders are usually fine with, though they would tell you otherwise.

Rather than allowing state legislatures to keep the power to draw congressional and state legislative districts, which will inevitably result in the continuation of the practice of gerrymandering, each state should have a nonpartisan committee of citizens to undertake the redrawing of district maps after each census. This, in my opinion, is the single reform measure most urgently needed in the United States today.

Seven states - Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington - currently have redistricting commissions which possess full authority to draw congressional and legislative districts. Three others, Florida, Maine, and New York, have commissions which draw up proposed plans, though the legislature still has final say. Iowa has a unique system in which a bipartisan group of legislative staff draw up district maps and, if the legislature rejects them, the state supreme court makes the decision. It's no coincidence that congressional elections in those states have become more competitive, resulting in greater attention paid by incumbents to the wishes of their constituents and more fruitful debate and discourse in their political campaigns. Indeed, of the 25 most competitive congressional districts, sixteen are in one of these eleven states (and Montana doesn't really count here, since it only has one representative in the House).

The legislation creating such commissions must be carefully crafted to prevent the politicians from pulling a fast one on the people, giving them the appearance of a reform without its reality. As an example of a good piece of redistricting reform legislation, consider the bill repeatedly introduced in the Texas Legislature by State Senator Jeff Wentworth, a San Antonio Republican. Wentworth's bill envisioned a nine member commission, with four members each from the largest and second largest parties in the legislature (the Republicans and Democrats, for all practical purposes), with a ninth member being chosen by the other eight. Membership on the commission was barred to people who held elected office or people who held official positions with political parties. The legislation required that whatever plan put forward by the commission creates districts of roughly equal population, must be "compact" and "convenient", and (most important) not be designed to discriminate against any political party of group. Had this bill become law, the days of packing members of one political party into as small a number of districts as possible would have been over.

Redistricting reform could happen on the level of the individual states, as has already taken place in many states. It can also happen on the federal level. Under the Constitution, Congress has the authority to require the states to create independent redistricting commissions. Indeed, during the last few sessions of Congress, well-intentioned congressmen (there are a few, believe it or not) have proposed legislation which would do exactly that. However, it should come as no surprise that the bills have gone nowhere in Congress. After all, because the members of Congress are the ones who benefit from gerrymandering, why should we expect them to vote against their own individual self-interest?

What must happen is a comprehensive grassroots effort by American citizens to put enough pressure on both state legislators and their congressmen and senators to get them to get these bills passed. As seen above, many states have already done so, and as more follow suit momentum will be built to the point where it will be like a snowball rolling down a hill. If enough momentum is built, it can overcome the political inertia that currently holds the process back. We, as citizens, must make redistricting reform a priority, because until we do, the idea of a true representative democracy will remain a mere dream. More to the point, until the power of the ruling political elite is broken, the country's most pressing problems will remain unaddressed.

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