Monday, October 1, 2012

How Gerrymandering Is Destroying Our Democracy

Okay, so that headline sounds a bit grandiose, but if you asked me to name the most corrosive element in our democracy right now, it wouldn't be campaign finance, media outrage machines, lobbying gone wild, or any of a dozen other very real problems that we have.

I would nominate the widespread practice of gerrymandering: drawing voting districts along partisan lines either to give one party or the other an advantage in a legislature, or to give both parties safe seats that leave incumbents more accountable to challenges from the far wing of their own party than from opponents from the other party or from the middle of the electorate.  A lot of voters are unaware that this activity even happens, much less how it has become a rigged system to choose your lawmaker for you.

Before I go much farther down this path, I'm going to recommend to you an article on gerrymandering in this month's Atlantic magazine: The League of Dangerous Mapmakers by Robert Draper.  Go give it a read ... I'll be here when you get back.

[Brief interlude of whistling while I wait.]

Okay, you're back?  Fascinating, isn't it?!

That's pretty much the article that I would have liked to have written on this topic, if I had more time and actual journalism skills.  The only difference is that I probably would've used some local Michigan examples that appear on my own ballot: the Thaddeus McCotter saga in Michigan's 11th U.S. House District, the bizarre and brutal story of the redistricting re-legislation for the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, and a half-dozen other good examples from the Republican-controlled redistricting process in Michigan.  Rest assured, they're all as good as anything in that article.  A couple of them are even more colorful and egregious.

But rather than depress you with a long saga of political malfeasance and skulduggery, let me just state the problem as I see it, and talk about how we can fix it.

When I look at the U.S. Congress and our state legislature in Michigan these days, I wonder how these institutions became so broken.  The biggest problem that I see is that moderate lawmakers from either party are nearly extinct. There will always be a certain number of safe districts, but the systematic push to ensure that the vast majority of our legislatures will only be chosen in a primary means that moderate and independent voters -- by far the biggest bloc of voters in America -- are almost entirely unrepresented by their lawmakers.

Is it any wonder that our state and federal legislatures look broken and gridlocked most of the time?  We take the people most stridently opposed to one another, leave them unaccountable to the voters, and then ask them all to work it out nicely.  Good luck with that!

The good news is that this is one thing that is broken in our system that I think we can fix.  As mentioned in the Atlantic article, several states have adopted non-partisan redistricting commissions. And although partisan shenanigans were often involved in their adoption, it still strikes me as a very big step in the right direction.

After this year's election, I plan to follow up with a look at the results.  My theory is that the states with nonpartisan redistricting boards will have much closer general election results than the states whose boundaries were drawn by boards dominated by a single party or boards drawn by bipartisan commissions.  Meanwhile the average margin of victory in the other states will have grown even larger as everybody settles into their new and comfy safe districts.  Believe it or not, my general expectation is that the next Congress will be even more intransigent than the current disaster.

Comfy, safe districts are the problem here, folks.  We have an awful lot of lawmakers who are far too comfortable in their position and far too unwilling to compromise with one another to get things done.  It needs to stop, and we need to be the ones to put a stop to it.

1 comment:

  1. Well put! And while the article has been written, there is still much to say and do... after this election.