Tame Polarization Of Politics, Fix Our Redistricting System
who's fed up with polarized politics-as-warfare ought to root
for passage of California's Proposition 77 and Ohio's Issue 4
on Nov. 8.
also lobby Congress to support the Fairness and Independence in
Redistricting Act, sponsored by Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), which
would require states to create independent commissions when redrawing
Congressional districts every decade.
system of redistricting isn't the whole reason that politics has
become so acrid and that bipartisan agreement is so difficult,
but it plays a big part. And there are now the beginnings of a
movement to change it.
current system, voters (as the saying goes) don't pick their political
representatives - the politicians pick their voters.
census - and, increasingly, whenever power changes hands in a
state legislature - legislators and party operatives plug detailed
voting data into sophisticated computer software to draw boundaries
that protect incumbents, concentrate partisans and virtually eliminate
told me in an interview, "the system produces Representatives
who are good people, but their first allegiance is to their party,
not the broad general welfare."
toughest race a Member of Congress will typically face under this
system is in a party primary, Tanner said, "the system skews
Members to the extremes. The middle has shrunk, and all you have
left is the wings."
endangered species are moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog Democrats
like Tanner. Moderate New Democrats increasingly toe the liberal
party line. Most moderate Republicans are marginal players, and
liberal Republicans are essentially an extinct species.
in safe, highly partisan districts, House Members and candidates
rarely have to compete for moderate or independent voters or look
to the middle ground for solutions. When they get to Washington,
D.C., Members scowl and shout at the opposition across a widening
ideological chasm. Socializing across party lines is deemed close
to treason. And as House Members graduate to the Senate, that
body has become more fractious, as well.
and California referenda are key tests in a widening national
effort to change the system. Naturally enough, defenders of the
status quo - Democrats in California, Republicans in Ohio - are
spending millions to block what they term a "power grab."
In a technical
sense, they are right: Passage of the measures would indeed grab
redistricting power. But it would take that authority out of the
hands of elected politicians, who have been misusing it, and assign
it to independent commissions.
commissions like the one approved by Arizona voters in 2000, or
the unusual nonpartisan system used in Iowa, are not perfect,
but they are definitely an advance over legislative redraws.
to the efforts in Ohio and California, reformers are mounting
signature campaigns to place ballot measures in Florida and Massachusetts,
and legislation to change the law or the state constitution has
been introduced in several other states.
the California and Ohio referenda would authorize mid-decade reapportionments
like those rammed through in Texas and Georgia. On balance, though,
they're big steps in the right direction. California is so gerrymandered
that in 2004, not one seat changed party control out of 153 in
the state legislature, Congress and the tax-adjudicating Board
On a trip
to endorse Proposition 77, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) commented
that "more people lose their seats in the Politburo in Havana
than in the Congress in America." In Ohio, not only did no
U.S. House seat change hands in 2004, but the closest race was
decided by a margin of 17 points, and only one other (out of 18
seats) came in with a margin under 20 percent.
margin in Ohio state Senate races was 35 percent, and the average
state House margin was 38 percent. Twenty-two state legislative
seats went uncontested.
Democrats in California charge that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
(R) has partisan purposes in mind with Proposition 77, he has
endorsed Ohio's Issue 4, which is ferociously opposed by Republicans.
McCain is neutral on the Ohio measure. His office wasn't clear
about why, leading me to suspect he calculates that his 2008 presidential
prospects can stand only so much renegade-ism.
California and Ohio suggest that both referenda are trailing in
public support, and, in both cases, established interests are
likely to outspend reformers by 2-to-1 in the closing two weeks.
77 is further endangered by being tied to Schwarzenegger, whose
popular approval has sunk into the mid-30s. In Ohio, though, reform
has the advantage of being opposed by the scandal-mired GOP.
happens at the state level this year, however, lack of competitiveness
is a national problem. The reformist group FairVote points out
that in every election since 1996, more than 98 percent of incumbents
have been re-elected and more than 90 percent of races have been
decided by more than 10 points.
bill, based on Congress' Constitutional power to determine the
"times, places and manner" of House elections, would
set standards for nonpolitical state commissions to draw boundaries.
establishment tried to block campaign finance reform and lost.
This is an even worthier cause.
Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.