GOVERNMENT GRIDLOCK AND GERRYMANDERING

ABSTRACT: The gridlock in Congress is caused by hyper-partisanship and by the extreme views and tactics of some Representatives and Senators. There are four major reasons for it. I will address each of these in upcoming posts, starting with gerrymandering in this post.

Every 10 years, the boundaries of the Congressional Districts (CDs) for US House members are redrawn to reflect shifts in population. The CD boundaries are typically determined by state legislatures. The opportunity to draw the boundaries to achieve political goals has been irresistible. This process of drawing election districts to gain political advantage often ends up creating oddly shaped districts. This is referred to as “gerrymandering.” Because of growing partisanship and improved geographical computer capabilities over the last two decades, gerrymandering after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses was taken to a new level. As a result, in the 2012 Congressional election, Democratic House candidates nationwide received 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates but won only 201 seats in the House to the Republicans’ 234.

Gerrymandering produces “safe” districts – ones where the party that will win the election is known in advance. Competition between the parties, which tends to push both party’s candidates’ policy positions to the center in the interest of being competitive, is increasingly rare. Candidates from the ideological extremes are encouraged and it is hard to hold elected officials accountable to the voters, as opposed to special interests, especially ones with money, because a candidate’s party affiliation virtually guarantees election.

One solution to gerrymandering, is to have independent, non-partisan commissions perform re-districting after the decennial Census. Six states have created such commissions; several others are considering doing so.

Gerrymandering, in effect, allows politicians to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians. It produces elected officials who are at ideological extremes and who will use extreme legislative tactics that cause gridlock. Ultimately, only the voters can stop gerrymandering and restore truly democratic elections, which are necessary for our democratic system, including Congress, to work.

FULL POST: The gridlock in Congress is caused by hyper-partisanship and by the extreme views and tactics of some Representatives and Senators. Many political scientists and others feel that this gridlock is a real crisis for American democracy. The last two sessions of Congress (2011-12 and 2013-14) have been the least productive since 1948 when such measurement was begun. There are four major reasons for the gridlock:

  • Gerrymandered Congressional Districts
  • The process for nominating and selecting candidates
  • Low voter participation
  • The huge and growing amounts of money in our political campaigns

I will address each of these in upcoming posts, providing background on them, their effects, and solutions for them. I start with gerrymandering in this post.

Every 10 years, the boundaries of the Congressional Districts (CDs) for US House members are redrawn to reflect shifts in population as measured by the decennial Census. The required goal is that each CD must have roughly the same number of residents.

The CD boundaries are typically determined by state legislatures, i.e., politicians in a political body. The opportunity to draw the boundaries to achieve political goals has been irresistible. Usually, the political goal is to benefit one of the political parties, although it can also be to produce a CD that enhances the likelihood of a specific individual winning, usually an incumbent up for re-election. The typical tactics are to spread opposition voters across multiple districts where they are in a clear minority to minimize their influence or, when necessary, to lump as many of them as possible into one or a few districts that are conceded to the opposition, preserving as many CDs as possible for the favored party.

This process of drawing election districts to gain political advantage often ends up creating oddly shaped districts, rather than compact districts (i.e., ones that are roughly circular or square) or ones that follow the boundaries of existing towns, cities, or counties. This is referred to as “gerrymandering.” The term “gerrymander” was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate districts under the then-governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812. Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party over the Federalists. The shape of one of the contorted districts on a map was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. Hence, the term “Gerry-mander” as it was originally written. [1]

Because of growing partisanship and improved geographical computer capabilities over the last two decades, gerrymandering after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses was taken to a new extreme. The redistricting that took place after the 2010 Census has been labeled “the most distorted and partisan redistricting in modern times.” [2] Because of the growing number of state legislatures and governorships in the hands of the Republican Party over this period, the increased gerrymandering has, at a national level, mainly benefited Republicans.

As a result, in the 2012 Congressional election, Democratic House candidates nationwide received 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates but won only 201 seats in the House to the Republicans’ 234. Here are some examples of states where Democratic presidential candidate Obama won but most of the House seats were won by Republicans and the percentage of House seats won was at least 20% higher than the percentage of the vote received by the Republican presidential candidate Romney:

  • Ohio: Republicans won 75% of House seats (12 of 16), Romney won 48% of the vote
  • Virginia: Republicans won 73% of House seats (8 of 11), Romney won 47% of the vote
  • Pennsylvania: Republicans won 72% of House seats (13 of 18), Romney won 48% of the vote

Gerrymandering produces “safe” districts – ones where the party that will win the election is known in advance. Competition between the parties, which tends to push both party’s candidates’ policy positions to the center in the interest of being competitive, is increasingly rare. Therefore, voters’ choices are reduced and the party primaries becomes the real election. Candidates from the ideological extremes are encouraged because competition from the other party is rare and in primaries, where voter participation is often quite low, mobilizing highly motivated voters with extreme views is often the easiest way to win. And money has a bigger impact in these small, less publicized primaries.

Given the lack of competition between the parties, it is hard to hold elected officials accountable to the voters, as opposed to special interests, especially ones with money, because a candidate’s party affiliation virtually guarantees election. The weakened, typically emasculated, opposition party can’t serve as a check and balance. [3] As a result of gerrymandering, it is estimated that only 35 of the 435 House seats will have a competitive, inter-party race in 2014. Therefore, there is little to deter highly partisan and extreme behavior in Congress. [4][5]

Candidates or elected officials who personally may hold moderate views are pushed to express opinions in public and cast votes in Congress at the extremes because of the threat that their party’s primary election represents. [6] Even House Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell are afraid to take moderate positions or actions because of the possibility of far right challengers in their re-election primaries.

One solution to gerrymandering, is to have independent, non-partisan commissions perform re-districting after each Census. Iowa, California, Arizona, and 3 other states have created such commissions. Several other states are considering doing so. [7]

Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process was created in 1980. Three bureaucrats, who sequester themselves for 45 days after the Census data is available, redraw Iowa’s four Congressional Districts. They are not allowed to consider voters’ party affiliation, previous election results, or the addresses of current members of Congress, or to have any contact with any politician. The goals for the districts, other than equal population, are compactness and respect for existing county boundaries. The result has been some of the country’s most competitive races for the US House and candidates who focus on representing the people of the district, not some ideology or party. [8]

Congress could pass legislation to require states to create independent redistricting commissions, but there is no sign of a sufficiently powerful grassroots movement to force such an action, which would require Congress to act against its own perceived interests. [9]

Gerrymandering, in effect, allows politicians to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians. [10] It produces elected officials who are at ideological extremes and who will use extreme legislative tactics that cause gridlock. Ultimately, only the voters can stop gerrymandering and restore truly democratic elections, which are necessary for our democratic system, including Congress, to work.


 

[1]       Wikipedia, retrieved 3/3/14, “Gerrymandering,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering

[2]       Drew, E., 9/26/13, “The stranglehold on our politics,” The New York Review of Books

[3]       Rapoport, A., Nov. / Dec. 2013, “Fifty shades of purple,” The American Prospect

[4]       Drew, E., 9/26/13, see above

[5]       Potomac Chronicle, Dec. 2013, “Angry about partisan gridlock in Washington? Blame the states,” Governing http://www.governing.com/columns/potomac-chronicle/gov-redistricting-gone-mad.html

[6]       Stockman, F., 10/8/13, “Shutdown: Join the club,” The Boston Globe

[7]       Potomac Chronicle, Dec. 2013, see above

[8]       Jan, T., 12/8/13, “Iowa keeping partisanship off the map,” The Boston Globe

[9]       Drew, E., 9/26/13, see above

[10]     Fair Vote, retrieved 3/2/14, “Redistricting,” The Center for Voting and Democracy, http://www.fairvote.org/research-and-analysis/redistricting/

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