Anchorage, Alaska— His eyes were darting and his voice was urgent with a compelling message. Peter Gruenstein, an Alaskan trial attorney and co-author of a book on Alaska, was speaking against the greatest blow to our political democracy since big money started buying the two major parties. He calls gerrymandering—often known as redistricting— “the civil rights issue of the decade.”
On the federal level, about 95% of the House of Representatives’ districts are carved up in ways that are dominated by either the Republican or Democratic Parties. Leaders of both parties acknowledge their handiwork. There is no dispute over their belief that only about 25 House districts are competitive; the rest are slam dunks for one or the other party’s candidate.
Does this sound boring to you? Consider further. When politicians and their computers start choosing their voters, you lose your choice. You go to the polls and there is the incumbent’s name for you to coronate. Because there is no real choice offered by any other candidate. Your electoral district has been conceded.
Instead of you picking the candidates with your vote on a ballot line with more choices, the incumbent and his/her party are picking which voters to put in which district. This is the end of the very meaning of elections which imply that there are selections. No selections, no real elections. Down to one.
In 2002, only 4 members of the House of Representatives out of 435 were defeated. Four members! Never before in American history has there been anywhere near such an absence of two-party competition. In the 19th century, sometimes a third of the House would be rejected by the voters. But politicians have learned how to turn a two-party duopoly into a single-party monopoly facing most voters.
Two years ago in California, only Congressman Gary Condit lost his seat, due to the widely publicized uproar over his behavior. All the other 52 members of the California Delegation in Congress— both Republican and Democrats—seeking to retain their positions won re-election. The closest race was an incumbent representative who won “only” 59% of the votes against his challenger’s 41%.
The same incumbent monopoly is spreading at the state legislative level. Forty percent of all state legislators are not even facing an opponent from the other major party in November. In Massachusetts, the figure rises to about sixty percent! Not even a nominal opponent.
Redistricting used to occur every ten years after the census. Now the politicians think they can do it every two or four years.
Gruenstein says that “the loss of equal voting rights caused by gerrymandering— taken to new depths of precision through computer programs and immunized by jelly-kneed courts— has disenfranchised the vast majority of Americans just as effectively as King George did, and more insidiously. What would Thomas Jefferson say?”
“Gerrymandering fundamentally undermines the democratic process itself, and there is essentially no rational basis for opposing reform,” Gruenstein adds.
So see if your fellow citizens give a damn. Describe the situation to them and watch their eyes glaze over, as if to say, what can you expect from the politicians and what has this got to do with my daily struggle?
It has a lot to do with your daily life. Want a few examples? How about the gouging of prices of medicines, crumbling schools while stadiums take your tax dollars, the air you breath, the water you drink, the jobs you lose, the cutbacks in wages and benefits, the outsourcing, the health care you cannot afford, the looting of your pension plan or savings by corporate crooks, the suction of your tax dollars for corporate subsidies and giveaways and the overall failure of governments to defend your interests.
Why should elected officials care about you when they can raise money from your commercial opponents and get elected automatically?
Redistricting can be done by non-partisan commissions— as in western Europe— and it can be done rationally with minimal partisan bias in the voter makeup. Iowa comes closer to this approach and guess what, they have more competitive elections.
Remember today’s redistricting via computers takes away the voices and choices that would listen and respond to your concerns, your desires for a better future for your children.
Also remember, the replacement of democracy with autocracy in our country comes not with heavy boots and smashed doors. It is coming, to use the words of the poet Robert Frost, “on little cat feet.”
For more on electoral reform, contact the Center for Voting and Democracy, 6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 610, Takoma Park, Maryland 20912; by phone: 301-270-4616, fax: 301-270-4133 and at www.fairvote.org.