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To Tame Polarization of Politics, Fix Our Redistricting System

Everyone 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.

They should 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.[IMGCAP(1)]

The current 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.

Under the current system, voters (as the saying goes) don’t pick their political representatives — the politicians pick their voters.

After every 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 competitive districts.

As Tanner 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.”

Because the 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.”

Among the 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.

Ensconced 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.

The Ohio 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. Independent 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.

In addition 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.

Unfortunately, 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 of Equalization.

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.

The average 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.

Although 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.

Polls in 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.

Proposition 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.

Whatever 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.

The Tanner 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.

The political establishment tried to block campaign finance reform and lost. This is an even worthier cause.