Monday, May 11, 2009

Gerrymandering Must Be Abolished

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 of partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering. Essentially, it involves the majority party in a legislative body deliberately drawing the lines of legislative districts in such a way as to maximize the number of districts their party will win and minimize the numbers of districts the opposition will win. 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.

This is nothing new. During elections for the very first Congress in 1788, Patrick Henry tried to gerrymander James Madison out of a congressional seat. Indeed, the very term "gerrymander" comes from Elbridge Gerry, a contemporary of Jefferson who, as governor of Massachusetts, made the gerrymandering of his political enemies a standard policy for his tenure in office. But the fact that it has been done for a long time is no justification for its continuation, for gerrymandering 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.

Another, even worse consequence of gerrymandering is that 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's not worth the effort and resources and simply don't run a candidate at all. 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 by the gerrymandering process?

It is a commonplace practice for a member of a state legislature who is planning on running for Congress to use his influence to create a congressional district for himself, including the areas where his support is already the strongest. Thus he not only gains an unfair advantage over any candidate from the other party, but against any potential opposing candidate from his own party. While legal, it is still immoral and corrupt.

The essence of a Jeffersonian 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. It should come as no surprise that well over 90% of Congressmen are reelected every two years, a fact which would have dismayed Jefferson.

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. Legislation creating such commissions must include language to ensure that these commissions should be made up of citizens who are not elected officials, active supporters of elected officials, officials of any political party, or who otherwise have some personal advantage to gain by gerrymandering.

Twelve states, including Iowa, Arizona, and Washington, currently have such commissions functioning. It's no coincidence that their elections 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.

Under the Constitution, Congress would have the authority to require the states to create independent redistricting commissions. Indeed, during the last Congress, House Resolution 1365 was proposed by Representative John Tanner (D-TN) and Representative Zach Wamp (R-TN), which would have done exactly that. However, it should come as no surprise that the bill went nowhere in Congress. After all, because the members of Congress are the ones who benefit from gerrymandering, how can we expect them to vote against their own individual interest?

It seems clear that, if any successful action is to be on the issue of gerrymandering, it must be done by the individual states. This presents obvious problem, due to the partisan divide currently splitting America. Consider the four largest states: California, Texas, New York, and Florida. If California and New York, which are dominated by Democrats, were to implement redistricting reform, it would be to the advantage of Republicans, whereas of Texas and Florida were to do so, it would be to the advantage of Democrats. Unless it was done everywhere at the same time, which seems extremely unlikely, one party or the other would gain an advantage, and this prospect would likely derail the entire process.

What must happen is a comprehensive grassroots efforts by Jeffersonian citizens to put enough pressure on their own state legislators to get them to get these bills passed. Twelve 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 holds the process back.

We, as citizens, must make this a priority, because until we do, the idea of a true Jeffersonian republic will remain a mere dream.

1 comment:

Ariela Butler said...

I really love your blog. Why did you quit?