One Thing We Can Do

There isn’t much that rational Republicans and Democrats can do about today’s zealots. John Boehner has obviously lost control of both the “suicide caucus’ and his mind. But we can—and should—avoid repeats of this hostage situation created by extremists who owe their elections not to fair elections but to gerrymandering.

In Indiana, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause have launched “Rethinking Redistricting: Drawing a Line for Democracy,” a project designed to ensure that “voters choose their legislators instead of legislators choosing their voters.” They hope to generate a popular movement to amend the Indiana Constitution and require an independent redistricting commission.

A small but important step on the long road back to sanity.

Reform will be difficult. Both parties are invested in the current system. The only way change will occur is in response to a true grass-roots movement, and in order to generate that movement, ordinary citizens will need to understand how the practice of partisan redistricting undermines democratic accountability.

In order to increase public understanding of the problems, “Rethinking Redistricting” plans to conduct a broad educational campaign via “conversation circles,” a time-honored approach to retail politics. Attendees will discuss the most harmful effects of our current system, which virtually ensures that few districts will actually be competitive. (In 2012, only two of Indiana’s Congressional districts were considered competitive.)

When a result is predetermined—when a citizen’s vote is unlikely to affect the outcome—citizens don’t vote. And in Indiana, they don’t. The 2011 Civic Health Index ranked Indiana 48th in the nation for voter turnout.

Worse, with lack of competition comes polarization. Republicans don’t fear Democratic opposition, they fear primary challenges from the Right; Democrats don’t worry about Republicans; they worry about attacks from the Left. The current system thus destroys incentives to work across the aisle, to be reasonable, to negotiate and find acceptable compromises.

The current system has given us the Tea Party debacle we are currently seeing. Thanks to gerrymandering, despite the fact that Democratic candidates for Congress got a million more votes than Republicans in the last election, Republicans retained control of the House. The cost was high: election of 80 Representatives from deep Red districts, drawn to be impervious to competition and thoroughly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, that comprise what has been dubbed “the suicide caucus.”

Even within today’s radical GOP, they represent a minority view.

According to the Cook Political Report, Representatives in the suicide caucus were elected with fourteen and a half million votes, or twelve percent of the votes cast in the 2012 elections. They represent fifty-eight million constituents—eighteen percent of the population. Seventy-six of them are male, seventy-nine white.

None of them represent the sane American middle.

Call your local League of Women Voters rep, or Julia Vaughn at Common Cause. Host a conversation, call your State Senator and Representative. Let’s do something really radical, and let Indiana voters choose their representatives rather than the other way around.


  1. Sheila; please explain redistricting/gerrymandering, I have never known or understood the basis for allowing it or the who and why of it. There is always a way to stop a situation that has been started – where there is a beginning, there must be an end, or a solution. For myself, that old adage, “To know the question is to know the answer.” doesn’t work in this instance. Thanks and please, keep on keepin’ on! From one old Hudnut worker to another, who grieves the loss of the true GOP who gave us choices come election times.

  2. JoAnn: After each diennial census, legislative districts must be adjusted to reflect changes in population. But in most cases, the task of drawing the lines goes to the majority political party. And their first goal is to keep themselves in office and their party in power. So they draw lines to accomplish that, usually by cramming as many of those likely to vote for the other party into just a few districts. Thus, in Indiana, 2 of 9 districts are designed to be solidly blue so that the other 7 can be solidly red. In 2012, Rs won 7 of 9 seats but only about 53% of the total vote. In Pennsylvania, Rs list the total vote but won 12 of 17 seats.

  3. Michael; thank you. I basically understood that the census/population was the general basis for redistricting; what I don’t understand is why the authority for drawing lines should/would/could go to the majority political party with obvious results. Is this law or merely political power grab? Who is in charge of this blatantly one-sided political game-playing which can change with the next election?

  4. The law simply says that state legislatures redraw district lines for themselves and for Congress in almost all states. That’s all the legal authority that is needed. The practical effect is that the majority party in the state legislatures dominates the process with the a few rules that must be followed. The districts must be approximately equal in population, they must be contiguous (all parts of the district must connect), and wherever possible majority black or Hispanic districts are to be drawn (usually they peg “majority” at 60%) Actually Republicans love to create what are called majority-minority districts because it allows them an excuse to further concentrate a typical Democratic constituency into fewer districts.

    The game is to concentrate your opponent in as few as districts as possible with districts conceded to the minority party (those districts run about 80-20), while in the majority party districts the goal is to spread out your vote as much as possible to win seats in close but safe districts (60-40 is the optimum as it allows a solid win plus provides a margin during the down years.) What has really aided gerrymandering is computer technology which makes slicing and dicing voters to get the right mix a thing of art.

    There are practical limits on gerrymandering. For example, I don’t think there are enough Republicans in Marion County living in the right areas to draw a Republican majority council map. Although when Brooks drew his map he claimed 15-10 Republican advantage, my numbers suggest it’s more like 17-8 Democrat. In the map drawn by the Court it would appear to be at least 15-10 Democrat.

    The problem is if you take redistricting away from state legislatures, who do you give it to? Even if it’s a commission, it could still be political with those making the choices even farther removed any kind of voter oversight. Do you have courts draw the maps? Well judges in Marion County are subject to slating and are fiercely partisan in such matters. I don’t know what the answer is. While the criticism of gerrymandering is obviously valid, it’s not clear what the solution is.

  5. Silly question: Do you have to be a woman to participate with the League of Women Voters on this very important issue?

  6. The appearance of impropriety when the town I live in (Plainfield) hires Brian Bosma’s group to help them redistrict their area.

  7. Wonderful idea, but where are the names and addresses and emails and other more specific directives that will assist people to actually DO something? Let’s face it: Many of us are couch-potato activists, and we’ve come to depend on such things!

  8. Thank you for this post, Sheila.

    I commend the League of Women Voters and Common Cause for their efforts and strongly support them. I have even tried out the excellent software that was made available before the City-County Council redistricting.

    However, I do have to take exception to one thing. While gerrymandering is a large part of the problem, there is another part that you actually display in your post. We keep suggesting that the Left and the Right are the same. This isn’t true. The political parties have not moved away from each other. Both have run to the right, at least since the election of Ronald Reagan. It is true that Republicans fear a primary challenge form their right, but the Democrats have not feared a challenge from their left. The left never had that much clout. Add to this our reluctance to call Reactionaries by that name. We basically have buried our heads in the sand until the “suicide caucus” took over the Republican Party.

  9. Paul Ogden’s comments are persuasive. Partisans would still appoint the supposedly non-partisan re-districting commission members. Legislators whose safe districts were disassembled would still have a vote on the final map. The state or federal courts seem a more reliable alternative. They are less partisan than legislators, but they are still partisans too. This is a tough one.

  10. There is software available (for A LOT LESS than political consultants charge) which can redistrict based upon fair parameters available for all to see. But then, where’s the political “fun” in THAT when one is part of the majority party?!?

  11. My father once suggested that evidence in all criminal trials, prosecution and defense, be entered into a computer and let the computer decide the verdict. Not sure I agree with this procedure for criminal trials but could it be used to decide redistricting? It would certainly make a nonpartisan decision…but that brings up the old saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Who could be trusted to enter the necessary information?

  12. A question the comments above didn’t quite ask had to do with the “constitutionalty” of gerrymandering itself. As i recall, the federal courts at least have said this was a “political” issue in which the judicial branch should not get involved, except where another constitutional or statutory issue was involved (for example, districting having a forbidden racially disparate impact. “Mere” favoring of one political party over another doesn’t cut it, at least not so far.

    Perhaps at some point a future SCOTUS might (like it has in certain issues that were previously considered off-limits) change its minds, at least concerning “egregious” gerrymandering. But I don’t hold my breath.

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