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Redistricting Away Consent

Redistricting Away Consent

By Jeremy Lott - May 23, 2010

America was founded on the bedrock notion of the consent of the governed. In the past, that consent was often and easily withdrawn by the governed. Pollster Scott Rasmussen points out in his new book, In Search of Self-Governance, that high incumbency reelection rates are a recent and troubling change in our politics. The House of Representatives used to enjoy frequent and massive turnovers. In the election of 1948, that body saw a 75-seat swing in favor of the Democrats, ushering out the so-called "do nothing" Republican Congress.

What has changed since then? Gerrymandering, on a massive and, some say, troublesome scale. Though it's not a new phenomenon, the attempts at gerrymandering - drawing up districts with the clear intention of creating "safe" seats for certain select candidates to win - have become more effective and much more common, thanks to more accurate survey techniques and perhaps also to a general decline of shame. In many states, it's simply the normal way of doing business.

Every ten years it comes time to reapportion House seats and state districts according to new U.S. Census population figures. This sparks pitched struggles in state legislatures across the nation. Typically, the party in power uses the redistricting process to its advantage. It deals with troublesome voting blocs either by spreading them out over several districts or by what we might call electoral quarantine. That is when a number of guaranteed districts are created where a candidate from the opposition party can expect to coast to reelection.

The minority party or representatives of distinct voting blocs are usually complicit in maintaining the current corrupt system, or at least not distressed to see reforms fail. Why? Because they like predictability, and the current system guarantees a certain number of safe seats for minority and minority party candidates. Witness the recent redistricting debacle in the Illinois legislature.

Illinois Democrats had offered a state constitutional amendment to "reform" the current system by allowing redistricting disputes to be settled by a simple majority vote of the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. It passed the state senate but failed in the house, where the Dems are one vote short of a three-fifths supermajority. Republicans opposed the plan, preferring a more non-partisan proposal put forward by the League of Women Voters, but neither the League nor the GOP did enough footwork to put that proposal on the ballot.

So the old system wins again. If worst comes to worst, duly appointed members of legislature will literally have to pull the winner's name out of a hat to settle redistricting disputes. "How embarrassing is that?" asks the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune.

The Trib's question assumes two things. One, embarrassment is a relevant consideration in politics today. Two, experienced pols can be convinced to vote in favor of a system that would make their reelection efforts more difficult. And, who knows? Maybe in places other than Illinois they can be convinced to do just that. In New York state, for instance, former New York mayor Ed Koch is calling for redistricting reform in New York and all the likely candidates for governor have said they support reform.

That doesn't mean voters will be happy with the results. Most redistricting reforms are aimed at taking politics out of the process, yet such change can just as easily give partisans legitimacy to do what they want. In Montana, reported the Billings Gazette, Republicans recently showed up "in droves" to plead with the Districting and Apportionment Commission to knock off all the de facto gerrymandering.

Critics charge that rampant gerrymandering leads to a less responsive politics and it's hard to contest that point. If incumbents really feared being tossed out, they would care more about what their constituents thought. If the House of Representatives was still prone to the wild swings of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it's hard to imagine that the House leadership would have gambled on Obamacare, for instance. Now that consent tends to be more "redrawn" than withdrawn, it simply matters less.

Jeremy Lott is an editor for RealClearPolitics and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

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