Democracy is in crisis. Only 20 percent of the country approves of the way Congress is doing its job.
There appears to be no compromise, no general agreement, no civility. Voting turnout is down, and too often the candidate with the most votes doesn’t get elected. What’s happening?
The strength and integrity of our electoral process has become more vulnerable. Stories of Russian cyberattacks and meddling, aging voting machines, outdated software and our own indifference undermine integrity. But there is another cause that’s real, proven, growing and the most immediate. It is partisan gerrymandering: when the majority party draws boundaries (districts) that concentrate supporters of the opposition into a few voting districts (“packing”) or spreads them thinly across many districts (“cracking”). The way the lines are drawn determines who controls the governing body, shapes legislative priorities and behavior and defines which bills get passed into law and which never receive a vote.
Partisan gerrymandering is an extremely powerful tool, so powerful that at times it has fundamentally altered the political slant of government. And although the practice of gerrymandering goes back 200 years, and has been used by both political parties, politicians now divide communities with increasing precision, using new mapping and data-mining technologies and creating bizarre-shaped districts, that in effect allow politicians to choose their voters. Plenty of research shows partisan redistricting rewards extreme positions rather than collaborative solutions. It makes accountable government almost impossible as many legislators run unopposed, achieve one-party control and veto-proof majorities.
Congressional representatives, state legislators and many local officials are elected from districts. Once each decade, the national census recounts populations and district lines are redrawn. Because the number of representatives in Congress is fixed at no more than 435, the number of congressional seats must be reapportioned, according to population changes. Some states gain seats while others lose seats.
In a few states, district boundaries are drawn by independent, non-partisan commissions. But in most states, this work is in the hands of the state general assembly. And since states are typically controlled by one political party or the other, this has led to the practice of “gerrymandering.” But the practice has become more aggressive and extreme.
The Texas General Assembly led the way. In the 2002 elections, 56 percent of Texans voted for the Republican U.S. representative, but Democrats realized a 17-15 majority of seats in Texas. Frustrated, Texas Congressman Tom DeLay, who was then the majority whip in Congress, put into motion a plan to create a permanent Republican majority in Texas and in the U.S. House of Representatives. The Texas legislature began carving historical congressional districts into Republican strongholds, taking care to use a redistricting plan that would not violate Supreme Court guidelines on minority representation.
The redistricting had a revolutionary effect. Today, Texas Republicans hold a 25-11 majority over Democrats. The Texas redistricting plan has been replicated around the country, and the results are devastating. For example, In the 2016 Pennsylvania primary elections, 86 percent of incumbents ran unopposed in their party’s primary. Politicians in “safe districts” had no incentive to work across party lines or compromise, and they could choose their own voters.
We must change the way we elect politicians and not become further alienated from voting. It requires a bipartisan cooperation among state and local election officials and nongovernmental organizations.
We must ensure the transparency of the process and meaningful opportunities for public participation. We must be wary of laws passed that make it harder to register and vote. For example, new laws that limit early voting and new, more restrictive, voter identification provisions recently passed in North Carolina, New Hampshire and Iowa. We need to prohibit new districts from being drawn that favor, or discriminate against, a political party or candidate.
But we cannot count on the president, nor his Election Integrity Commission, the courts, Congress or state legislatures to bring back voter integrity. Nongovernmental organizations need to get involved.
Our current system undermines the principle of one person, one vote. The best solution is an independent commission, with strict guidelines for public input and transparency, and clear standards for the outcomes. We need to do it now.
Carl Evensen is a resident of Ferguson Township.