A couple of days ago, I ran across one of those proliferating “wow, look what Trump is doing to the GOP” polls. It showed Clinton crushing Trump, the Senate going Democratic, and in the House, “generic Democrats” beating “generic Republicans” by 11 points.
The problem is, those “generic” preferences are meaningless. In the last House elections, Democrats nationally received a million more votes than Republicans. Have you noticed who controls the U.S. House of Representatives–by a very healthy margin? Republicans.
There are two reasons national generic preferences are irrelevant. The most obvious is that in individual congressional districts, voters do not have a choice between Generic Candidate A and Generic Candidate B. They are faced with real people, some of whom are appealing and some of whom are appalling, and party doesn’t predict those characteristics.
There is also a reason that voters face lopsided choices, or in some cases, no choice at all, and that reason is gerrymandering–partisan redistricting intended to make districts “safe,” aka uncompetitive.
As I have argued previously, this 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 irrelevant?
It isn’t only voters who lack incentives for participation: it’s very 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 incumbent and a marginal candidate recruited to fill the slot, a placeholder who offers no new ideas, no energy, and no genuine challenge. In other safe districts, there is no challenger at all; in either case, the primary is the real election. Such contests simply exacerbate cynicism and voter apathy.
Here in Indiana, a legislative study committee has been convened to consider the possibility of changing the way our legislators draw district boundaries. As one legislator noted during the last public meeting, the current system, which allows representatives to choose their voters rather than the other way around, is a clear conflict of interest. Several states have established nonpartisan redistricting commissions, and others are considering similar reforms.
Study committees tend to be places where legislation goes to die. In this case, citizen turnout at Study Committee meetings and pressure from large numbers of citizens–mostly mobilized by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause–has given us hope that we can actually get something done. The next meeting of the Interim Study Committee will be July 7th at 1:00 in the afternoon in the Indiana Statehouse. If there is once again a robust turnout from members of the public, that will send a very important message to legislators who want to hang on to a status quo that benefits them.
If you can attend, I hope you will.