Commentary: One small blow against gridlock
There’s nothing new about politicians using their offices to enhance their power. The word “gerrymander” was coined in 1812 after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill creating a legislative district that resembled a salamander.
But gerrymandering, which shields lawmakers from any sort of political accountability, is a major contributor to the current paralysis in Washington. And a Florida state judge, Terry Lewis, has struck a small but useful blow against that gridlock.
In a case brought by the League of Women Voters of Florida, Lewis wrote a blistering opinion that tossed out two Congressional districts: one protecting a conservative white Republican, the other a liberal black Democrat. These contorted constituencies, he wrote, “made a mockery” of a constitutional amendment, approved by Florida voters in 2010, that mandates fair districts that don’t favor one party over the other.
This past week, Republican leaders decided not to appeal the ruling, which could reverberate far beyond Florida if and when other maps in other states are subjected to the same kind of legal scrutiny.
Many factors combine to make today’s Congress one of the least productive — and most unpopular — in history. But distorted districts are clearly one of the most damaging causes.
To their credit, Republicans have placed a higher priority on local elections than the Democrats, and that effort gave them control of the redistricting process in many states. As Judge Lewis wrote, however, they’ve also abused that power to undermine the popular will.
One result has been to inflate Republican gains in the House. In 2012, Democratic candidates for Congress won 1.4 million more votes nationwide than Republicans, yet gained 33 fewer seats. In Ohio, a state President Obama won twice, the GOP held a 12-to-4 edge in House members. In Pennsylvania, another Obama stronghold, the Republican advantage was 13-to-5.
Yes, Democrats used their leverage to win extra seats in states like Illinois and Maryland. But overall, estimates Christopher Ingraham in the Washington Post, “the Democrats are under-represented by about 18 seats in the House” — just enough to give Republicans the majority.
The second impact of gerrymandering is on lawmakers once they come to Washington. Most are in such secure districts that they never have to pay attention to minority voices; their only real fear is being attacked in a primary as not pure or rigid enough. In that climate, compromise becomes virtually impossible.
As Obama predicted in The New Republic after the last election: “There are going to be a whole bunch of initiatives where I can get more than 50 percent support of the country, but I can’t get enough votes out of the House of Representatives to actually get something passed.”
That proved correct. Just look at the issue of immigration. In the Senate, where lawmakers have to run statewide and cannot manipulate their constituencies, 14 Republicans backed reform. One reason: Those Republicans had to pay attention to a broader range of voters — including Hispanics — in states like Arizona, Tennessee and Illinois.
Few House Republicans face the same pressures and incentives. As a result, immigration reform never even came to a vote in that chamber.
Democrats can be co-conspirators here. In many southern states, Florida included, they reached a bargain with the GOP that produced two kinds of districts: safe Republican seats dominated by whites, and safe Democratic seats dominated by blacks. Minority representation rose, but the total number of Democratic seats fell sharply.
The result was “district-level segregation,” notes the Post, and the demise of the conservative white Democrats who once played the critical role of dealmaker on Capitol Hill.
One answer to the “mockery” Judge Lewis describes is to take the district-drafting power away from politicians and give it to a nonpartisan citizens’ commission. Seven states do that now, and the example of California is encouraging and instructive.
That state was so gerrymandered that after the 2000 census, only one congressional seat out of 53 changed party hands over the next decade. After a commission redrew the lines following the 2010 census, one-fourth of the districts became competitive — a much healthier outcome.
The other answer lies with the courts. Traditionally, they have been very reluctant to resolve political disputes, and that’s a good thing. Elections have consequences and winners have rights.
But in a healthy democracy, so do losers. In a healthy democracy, judges like Terry Lewis have to defend dissent. If House members are insulated from criticism, if they are protected from accountability, if they never fear defeat, the whole system collapses.