Next year, during the 2001 legislative session, the Indiana General Assembly will engage in what individual legislators will call redistricting, and what the rest of us will call gerrymandering, after former Vice-President Elbridge Gerry. It will be an intensely partisan endeavor, and will be viewed by most citizens as highly technical and profoundly boring.
We will ignore it at our peril, because it will dramatically affect how we are governed for the next decade.
Whichever party wins a majority in November’s elections wins the privilege of drawing the new maps that will control the political agenda for the state. How does it work?
1) goal is to draw as many “safe” seats as possible–more for the party in charge, of course, but also for the minority party, because in order to retain control, the winners need to cram as many of the losers into as few districts as possible, and those districts are also safe. While we have engaged in this effort since Vice-President Gerry’s time (and he signed the Declaration of Independence!), the advent of computers has made the process far, far more efficient.
2) Neighborhoods, cities, towns, townships–even precincts–are evaluated solely on the basis of voting history, and then broken up to meet the political needs of mapmakers. Numbers are what drive the results–not compactness of districts, not communities of interest, and certainly not democratic competitiveness.
So what are the results of this process? Some of the more obvious include:
1) The interests of cities, neighborhoods, etc., are less likely to be represented.
2) Safe districts create sloppy legislation: if you are guaranteed victory every election, it is hard to be motivated and interested, easy to become lazy and arrogant.
3) Party preoccupation with gerrymandering consumes an enormous amount of money and energy that could arguably be better directed.
4) Brian Howey of the Howey Political Reports points out that safe seats allow politicians to scuttle popular measures without fear of retribution: campaign finance reform is just one example.
5) Lack of competitiveness also makes it impossible to trace campaign donations, since unopposed candidates send their unneeded money to those running in competitive districts. So when the folks with “Family Friendly Libraries” send a check to Rep. Censor, who is unopposed, he then sends it to Sen. MeToo, who is in a hot race; but Sen. MeToo’s campaign report shows only a contribution from Rep. Censor.
These are just a few of the more obvious effects of gerrymandering; there are plenty of others.
But there are two consequences that may be less obvious, and that I feel deserve especial attention and concern.
First, the lack of competitiveness breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why get involved when the result is foreordained. Why donate to a sure loser? For that matter, unless you are trying to buy political influence for some reason, why donate to a sure winner? Why volunteer or vote, when those efforts are clearly surplusage? Not only voters lack incentives for participation: it becomes increasingly difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. The result is that in many of these races, voters are left with a choice between the anointed and the annoying–marginal candidates who offer no new ideas, no energy, and no challenge of any sort. Such contests simply exacerbate voter apathy.
You may think I am exaggerating–after all, how many “safe” districts can there be? Well, let me tell you–our legislators may not be the swiftest when it comes to a lot of issues, but they have self-perpetuation down to a science. Out of the 150 members of our current legislature, 73 were unopposed during their last election. That is 49% of the body. That means, as Jim Knoop, a friend of mine, has aptly put it, “Almost half of our representatives and senators did not have to conduct a pesky campaign that requires a defense of past service and a dialogue over local issues.”
We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency of the voters. Allow me to suggest that it may be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. Watch those same “apathetic” folks at the local zoning hearing when a liquor store is applying for zoning! I would suggest that people save their efforts for places where those efforts count, and thanks to the increasing lack of competitiveness, those places may NOT include the voting booth.
Second, gerrymandering has contributed to the polarization of politics, and the gridlock it causes. How? Because when a safe district disenfrachizes the opposing party, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary–and that generally means that the challenge will come from the “flank” or extreme. In competitive districts, nominees know that they have to run to the middle in order to win a general election. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological of voters. So Republican incumbents will be challenged by the Right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the Left. Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to toe the line to placate those most rigid elements of each party. Instead of the system working as intended, with both parties nominating folks they think will be most likely to win among the broader constituency, we get nominees who represent the more extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide. Then we wonder why they can’t compromise and get the people’s business accomplished!
When I was asked to speak about redistricting, I know the intent was to have me emphasize the policy implications of a victory for the Republicans or Democrats. Those implications are certainly there: to the extent that the parties represent different philosophies, a victory in November means getting the “edge” for ten years in imposing one of those philosophies on Indiana government. But until we look long and hard at eliminating gerrymandering, whoever wins will encounter the sort of intransigence and gridlock that is an inevitable consequence of the current system. And–perhaps even worse–the reduced participation in the political processes that lead to elective office has significant implications for the very legitimacy of government action. Is a Representative truly representative when he/she is elected by 10% or 20% of the voters in the district?
It is really time for the citizens of Indiana to rise up and demand changes to this system. Those changes, at a minimum, should include those listed by Jim Knoop in the article I cited earlier:
1) areas of common economic interest and existing government boundaries should be respected to the greatest possible extent;
2) districts should be drawn to encourage an even playing field for both parties;
3) districts should be compact and rational in shape
As Jim rightly points out, if politicians can draw maps to create political advantage, they can also draw maps that are consistent
with the premises of democracy.