Congressional redistricting has become a scandal. I’m not referring to the heavy-handed redistricting in Texas. That could be considered an aberration. But most of the 50 states conducted the last round of redistricting after the 2000 census in a way that would have made even Elbridge Gerry blush. He’s the man Gerrymandering was named after. But he was merely trying to keep his partisans in office – not every incumbent in the land.
It was a strange thing that happened in 2000. Normal partisan motives were replaced with a strong incumbent protection focus. The result is that no longer do constituents choose their Representatives to the U.S. House. Rather, the Congressmen choose their constituents.
Here’s how bad it is. Last year, of the 435 seats in the House, only 13 shifted from one party to the other. Ninety-five percent of all those who won, did so by more than 10 points which is usually considered a “landslide.” Eighty-three percent won by more than 20 points. Serious observers estimate that only about 20 contests in the whole country could be considered competitive.
Don’t misunderstand. I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with incumbency or long years of service in a legislative body. Generally, in fact, it is an advantage to the constituency and to the body IF you have reasonable turnover. Then the senior members hold the institutional memory, the younger ones the energy, enthusiasm and optimism that all problems can be solved. In fact, I vigorously opposed the whole concept of term limits, which were supposedly designed to deal with the “evils” of incumbency. It is just a wrong-headed idea that deprives the voters of a full range of choices.
But cementing incumbents into their offices through rigging their district so they cannot loose, does exactly the same thing. Both eat at the fundamental concept on which a representative democracy is based: the peoples’ right to make meaningful choices.
Enter Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He has proposed giving the job of drawing legislative and congressional district boundaries to an independent panel of retired judges. That’s one way to do it. There are others. The important word is “independent.” The lines should be drawn to assure the one-man, one-vote rule of the Supreme Court is adhered to. I would add a couple of other criteria: compact and contiguous district that preserve, to the extent possible, shared “communities of interest.” Under such a plan, there is no guarantee all incumbents would be vulnerable. No problem. But none would be automatically invulnerable. That is the point.
Critics claim the governor is just trying to help Republicans who are currently in the minority in California. Even if that is so, it is not an advantage that would last long or be reliable. Besides, it sounds like sour grapes to me.
Go for it, Arnold! Let’s hope you succeed in California and other states follow.