Right to Choose

Posted May 4, 2004 at 4:56pm

We were hoping that the U.S. Supreme Court would find a way to declare the partisan gerrymandering of House seats to be unconstitutional and fashion a remedy that would undo the practice — now standard in virtually every state — of denying voters a meaningful choice of candidates. Last week, the court declined to do so. So now it’s up to America’s citizens, beginning with the campaign reform movement, to take back control of politics from the politicians.

Republicans and Democrats are at war about practically everything these days, but on the gerrymandering of House seats they stand arm in arm. Every decade after the census, state legislatures — with lots of direction from Washington, D.C. — redraw district lines to protect incumbents and to ensure that whoever gets his or her party’s nomination will be elected. In many states, computer-drawn lines make a mockery of the notion that districts should be compact and contiguous. Some of them look like barbells, others like frogs, others like snakes.

The consequence is that more than 90 percent of incumbents get re-elected — in 2002, for instance, only four incumbents lost to nonincumbent challengers from the opposite party — and the only threat a Member faces is in his or her primary election. This drives Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left and all but deprives most Americans of their most fundamental right to choose. In the 2004 cycle, only 25 to 30 House seats are truly contested. Mathematically, that’s enough to shift party control of the House, but practically, such a shift will happen only in a landslide year.

The Supreme Court had an opportunity to upset this system in a suit challenging Pennsylvania’s 2002 GOP redistricting, but it declined to do so — partly on the grounds that this was “a political question” and partly because it could not agree on a standard for judging when gerrymandering reached unconstitutional proportions.

So now it’s up to the people — hopefully led by political reformers of both parties. One conservative-dominated school of reform tried in the 1980s and 1990s to institute term limits on the grounds that America’s fundamental political problem was that politicians are inherently corrupt. Since then, a liberal-dominated school has instituted finance reform (and seeks more, to the point of taxpayer-financed campaigns) on the theory that politicians aren’t the main problem — “special interests” are.

We submit that the main problem in U.S. politics is that voters don’t have a right to choose — that they lack the ability to throw the rascals out. This ought to be a cause that both liberal and conservative reformers could unite around. A model exists: Iowa’s Legislative Research Bureau, an independent panel of civil servants within the state Legislature, draws new district lines each decade — and, in 2002, actually forced two House incumbents to move their residences to stay in Congress. These lines must be approved by legislators in a simple up-or-down vote, adding a stamp of political legitimacy to the process.

In California and 23 other states with the initiative process, reformers could enact this or another redistricting system in a ballot initiative, as Arizonans did in 2000. In other states, the practical challenges would be stiffer. But reclaiming the right of political choice is a noble cause, and worth the effort.