Editorial: Fairer Maps

Reformers Should Focus on Fixing Redistricting, Opening Primaries

Posted March 8, 2011 at 7:00pm

In several past Congresses, former Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) introduced bills, which we cheered, requiring states to redistrict House seats by independent commissions to avoid partisan gerrymandering. Unfortunately, the efforts went nowhere.

This year, the cause has been taken up by Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and separately by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). With most state legislatures getting ready to redraw district lines after the 2010 Census — and with Republicans running both the U.S. House and a majority of state legislatures — we doubt anything will happen this year, either.

But action is happening at the state level, and we’d urge national political reform groups to make it their cause to have that trend spread widely — and to begin advocating for open (or “blanket”) primaries that might also curtail the raw partisanship that seems to make it impossible to solve America’s problems.

The present, dismal state of affairs is this: The two national parties, using ultra-sophisticated census maps and computer models, design redistricting plans to create heavily Republican or Democratic districts to protect incumbents and minimize the number of contested “swing” seats.

As the truism goes, in America the voters don’t choose their politicians; the politicians choose their voters. The added unfortunate result is that officeholders need not campaign across party lines or look for consensus solutions because the only election they normally have to fear is a primary challenge from a candidate who will rouse the base vote more strongly than the incumbent.

The result, in the nation’s capital, is that House Members owe their seats more to their parties than to their constituents, and the Democratic Party leans ever more to the left and the GOP ever more to the right, making compromise ever more difficult.

Moderate voters, who amount to a near-majority of voters in exit poll after exit poll, are systematically frozen out of the candidate selection process and forced to choose between two ideologues picked in low-turnout primaries.

For years, the models for other ways of doing things were Iowa and Arizona, where independent commissions draw the lines. But last year, voters in two large states — California and Florida — overwhelmingly approved referenda ordering mappers to create competitive districts, not protect incumbents.

In both states, carrying out the voters’ mandates may prove complicated and litigious, but the voters’ intent was clear — they’re fed up with partisanship. So are most voters across the country, which creates opportunity for advances in other states.

We’d hope, too, for the spread of more experiments with primaries in which all voters can participate and the top two finishers, regardless of party, face off in a runoff. That’s the system in Washington state and Louisiana. In San Francisco, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif., voters rank the candidates, further encouraging broad-appeal campaigns.

For years, reform groups have fought to limit money in politics. The Supreme Court has declared in favor of money. So now the new cause should be election reform.