October 20, 2005
Restoring Democracy to Our Elections
The U.S Constitution provides life tenure for federal judges, which
means they depart only if they die or choose to leave. It does not
provide life tenure for members of Congress or state legislators,
but politicians have gone a long way toward correcting that oversight.
It's true that these
elected officials do have to answer to the voters every so often,
but for most, elections are a symbolic ritual that have been drained
of all suspense. The re-election rate for incumbent members of
the U.S. House of Representatives typically exceeds 98 percent
-- which means the average congressman is statistically more likely
to marry Angelina Jolie than to be voted out of office.
Most of them could
echo the confidence expressed by former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards,
who once said, "The only way I can lose is if I'm caught
in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy."
But the people of
California and Ohio are about to get the chance to regain control
of their democracy. On Nov. 8, they will get to vote on measures
that would take reapportionment away from the legislature and
turn it over to independent panels, whose members would not have
the same incentive to maintain permanent employment for incumbents.
led the fight to put Proposition 77 on the ballot in California.
Democrats accuse him of talking "reform" only because
he hopes it will give his Republican Party an opportunity to take
over the legislature. But now he has come out in favor of a similar
proposition in Ohio, where it is unpopular among Republican lawmakers
who fear they would lose control of the state legislature.
As a sitting governor,
Arnold may be a member of the true ruling power in this country
-- which is not the Republican Party or the Democratic Party but
the Incumbent Party. Yet, he refuses to do its bidding.
He knows one big
reason incumbents can sleep so soundly is that their districts
are carefully designed to prevent voters from springing unwanted
surprises. Legislators draw boundaries to assure the outcome they
want, even if it means creating districts that look like stick
figures undergoing torture. One California district contains two
large sections connected only by a narrow strip of coastline --
prompting one expert to quip that it "is only contiguous
at low tide."
has been around for centuries, but in recent years, thanks to
computers, it has been refined to a virtually infallible science.
Last year, 402 House incumbents ran for re-election. Only seven
lost. In 2002, only four incumbents lost.
Even close races
are becoming rare. In 1992, reports a study by the Cato Institute,
65 percent of House members running for re-election won by a landslide,
defined as a margin of 20 points or more. By 2004, 80 percent
enjoyed blowouts. That year, only 38 races out of 435 were decided
by less than 10 percentage points.
how bad things can get. In 2002, 153 legislative and congressional
seats were up for election. Not one of them changed party hands.
But California also
offers proof that things can be better. In the 1990s, the job
of redistricting ended up in the hands of a court-appointed panel,
and the results were dramatic. According to the organization Common
Cause, the number of competitive races increased by 50 percent.
After the 2000 census, though, the legislature got to redraw the
district lines, and the number of competitive elections fell by
suffer from election results that are predetermined by the elected.
Last year, 16 of the state's 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives
were contested, but not a single race was remotely competitive.
The closest one was decided by a margin of 18 percentage points.
The average margin of victory was 31 points.
The Ohio ballot initiative
would turn reapportionment over to an independent commission with
a mandate to bring back real elections. It says that "a primary
criterion to be utilized by the new commission in creating legislative
districts would be to ensure that districts are competitive."
If the measures in
Ohio and California pass, future voters may encounter an experience
that is increasingly rare: going to the polls without knowing
the outcome in advance. That used to be the essence of democracy,
and it could be again.
2005 Creators Syndicate