Darrell Berkheimer: How gerrymandering aids gridlock in Congress
You can’t keep doing things the same way and expect different results.
And so it is with Congress. If we want change with an end to gridlock, then we must stop sending the same people to Washington. But that’s exactly what we have been doing — and it’s politically cutting our own throats.
To provide for change — to get different results — means we must end gerrymandering.
California has done it; and so have six other states. But if we wait for the other 43 states to do so, it may never happen. And passing a constitutional amendment could be almost as difficult.
A Supreme Court ruling might have the effect of curbing gerrymandering. Our best bet, however, involves pressuring Congress to legislate it out of existence.
But first, let’s examine how serious the problem is.
Without term limits, incumbents can keep running for re-election. And because of gerrymandering, their chances of being re-elected are 80 percent to as high as 98 percent.
Here are the statistics, courtesy of OpenSecrets.org:
In the U.S. Senate, during the 31 years since 1986, the lowest incumbent re-election rates were 75 percent in 1986, 79 percent in 2000 and 2006, and as high as 96 percent in 1990 and 2004.
In the House of Representatives, the lowest re-election rate during the last 51 years occurred in 2010 when 85 percent of incumbents were elected. But 98 percent of the incumbents were re-elected in five of those election years — in 1986, 1988, 1998, 2000 and 2004.
In other words, eight and nine out of every 10 incumbents are re-elected to Congress. So I must repeat: How can we expect different results if we keep electing the same people?
As we go through each election season, the candidates roundly denounce Washington’s elitists, corporate influence, corruption and partisan politics. But 80 percent or more of those candidates are the Washington elitists who engage in the partisan politics and bow to the corporate influence.
Most incumbents keep getting elected because the majority party in their states reset district boundaries after each 10-year census. And when they denounce all that’s bad in Washington, they ignore how their parties gerrymander district boundaries to rig state elections in their favor.
Two of the worst examples are the shameful congressional districts that Democrats drew in Maryland, and which Republicans drafted in North Carolina.
In Maryland, Democrats have held power in both houses of the legislature since 1918 — only a few months shy of a full century. Democratic Party redistricting after each census has allowed them to remain in power.
And in North Carolina in 2012, President Obama carried the state by five points, but 13 of the state’s 18 congressional districts went to Republicans.
Just think about that. A candidate can win the state, and yet watch more than two-thirds of it go to the other party.
That’s a hijacking of that state’s election results. And it emphasizes how gerrymandering is a political leprosy that eats away at voters’ faith in our American democracy.
Another extreme situation has developed in Wisconsin from Republican re-districting in 2011. As a result 12 voters have claimed illegal gerrymandering in a suit referred to as Gill v. Whitford. And a federal, three-judge panel upheld their contention with a ruling that the GOP-revised district map violated the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
After that ruling, one of the 12 voters said, “We should all be able to agree on one thing: as voters in a democracy, we should have the right to freely choose our representatives rather than endure a system where politicians manipulate our district lines, dilute our votes, and choose their own constituents.”
The case is scheduled to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall. And the Wisconsin Gazette observed it could effect congressional maps in a half-dozen states, legislative maps in about 10 states, and have major implications for the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census.
As noted above, however, the best way to end the abuse would be legislation by Congress.
And Alan Lowenthal, a Democrat elected in 2012 to represent California’s 47th district in Congress, has introduced a bill to do just that. His “Let the People Draw the Lines Act” would create redistricting panels consisting of five Democrats, five Republicans and four Independents. “These would be people who haven’t run for office, who aren’t paid by either party, and who haven’t contributed to either party,” Lowenthal says.
As a former state assemblyman from Long Beach, Lowenthall was an original sponsor of a similar bill passed by California’s legislature in 2010 — seven years of contentious negotiations after it was first introduced. But getting one passed in Washington could be much more difficult, he said.
“Here, just getting everyone’s attention in an environment where so little gets done, I think it’s gonna be much more difficult. It’s going to take a lot of pressure from the media, from editorial boards, from communities, and from the people,” he said.
The Washington Post observed, “Getting a bill like this passed would require convincing legislators to vote some degree of power out of their own hands. And if there’s anything we know about congressmen, it’s that they try to hold on to power at any cost.”
“There is such distrust in government today,” Lowenthal said. He added that passing his bill would be one step toward re-establishing voter trust.
The Washington Post cited one telling statistic in its favor — that “voter dissatisfaction with incumbents is at record highs.”
But it’s really up to voters to see that it happens, the Post concluded in an editorial. That means we voters must pressure every member of Congress to vote for the bill.
So I repeat: we can’t allow things to be done the same way and expect different results.
(This is the fourth in a series of columns, which will continue with an Oct. 14 installment on the need for campaign financing reform, and the benefits received by Congress members. See this story at TheUnion.com to read the entire series.)
Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to The Union. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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