Thursday, January 17, 2013

Voters should pick their politicians, not the other way around

Poster child for gerrymandering: North Carolina's Congressional District 12 in 1992
You don't think our government is actually representative, do you?

The American electorate didn't vote for divided government. But that's what they got. A majority of Americans voted for President Obama, Senate Democrats and House Democrats. But the new House has a Republican majority of 33 though a million more people voted for Democratic House members.

And does it strike you as odd that President Obama comfortably won Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia, Florida and Wisconsin, but those state Legislatures are dominated by big Republican majorities?

For example, The Economic Intersection reports
In Ohio 52% of the total vote cast gained Republicans 80% of the seats. In Pennsylvania 49% of the vote gave Republicans 72% of the seats.
The unhappy result is relentless attacks on working families, like Michigan's No Rights At Work law, and gridlock in Congress. It also gives us unrepresentative extremist Republicans routinely threatening to shut down the government and default on U.S. debt.

The reason: gerrymandering. These days, voting maps are manipulated to stuff as many Republican voters into safe districts as possible. Legislative majorities use their power to cherry-pick the voters who are most likely to vote for Republicans. That electoral advantage is magnified by voter suppression laws.

The New Yorker explains:
Every ten years, following the decennial census mandated by the United States Constitution, state governments redraw legislative and congressional districts. Republicans have done well at capturing statehouses in recent years, even in states that have gone Democratic in Senate and Presidential votes, such as Virginia. In some of these states, Republicans have redrawn district lines with ruthless self-interest to ensure that voters elect the maximum conceivable number of Republicans to the House. 
Organizational theory and common sense would suggest that both major political parties engage in such shenanigans equally, when given the opportunity. That may be so over long periods of time; there is no especially convincing reason to ascribe to the Democratic Party any self-effacing idealism about getting its people elected. And yet, in a series of compelling posts recently, the statistical election-modeller Samuel Wang, of the Princeton Election Consortium, has argued that we are in an “asymmetric” period of Republican manipulation of electoral maps. 
According to Wang’s math, twenty-six seats out of the thirty-three-seat Republican advantage in the House can be attributed to gerrymandering in states with legislatures controlled by Republicans. He estimates that, in 2012, the number of American voters disenfranchised by this mapmaking—that is, the number of voters whose ballots were effectively rendered meaningless by various forms of stuffing Republican majorities into safe districts—was in the neighborhood of four million.
In some states, people are trying to find ways to create fairer districts. Our brothers and sisters in Ohio tried in November to change the way the lines are drawn by putting Issue 2 on the ballot. A 12-person citizen commission would have created voting districts without any input from elected officials or lobbyists. Sadly, the effort failed.

Ohio's Senate President Keith Faber has a new proposal to change the way congressional districts are drawn. Currently, Ohio's congressional map allowed 12 Republicans and four Democrats to be elected to Congress in 2012 -- even though President Obama carried the state by 166,000 votes.

Joe Frolik at The Plain Dealer explains how it would work: The plan would establish a commission to draw new voting maps after each federal census. It would include the governor, secretary of state and auditor.The top two members of the General Assembly from each party would each appoint a commissioner, who could not be a member of the Legislature or Congress. Any map would have to win by a five-vote super-majority with at least one member from each party.

The union-backed We Are Ohio is skeptical, as Sen. Faber was one of the most ardent supporters of the anti-worker Senate Bill 5.

California, on the other hand, has already done what Ohio tried to do: Let ordinary citizens draw the maps. The New Yorker reports:
In 2010, California voters approved a ballot initiative that empanelled a somewhat randomly selected commission of ordinary citizens to redraw legislative and congressional districts as their common sense guided them. The result went forward in the 2012 election cycle and it had disruptive consequences. At the time the commission acted, Democrats controlled the California legislature—without this good-government band of citizens redrawing maps, Sacramento Democrats would surely have protected their own. But the citizens’ commission forced two long-serving Democratic congressmen from Southern California, Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, to run against one another; Berman, the able chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lost. At the same time, however, Democrats stormed to a super-majority in the California legislature. Citizen-drawn maps had a role in that, too. 
The result is that California no longer has divided, gridlocked government, as it has had for the past decade.
Now that sounds like representative government.