Opinion and Forefront

KETZENBERGER: Gerrymandering surpasses ignorance

March 3, 2012

John KetzenbergerIndiana’s General Assembly is likely to finish a tumultuous and divisive session later this week and, given the fireworks, it’s hard to be upbeat about the 0.002 percent of fellow Hoosiers we chose to represent us in the Statehouse.

The rise of instant access to the public through social media proves every day there is no shortage of disdain for those we elect to office. Thumb through Twitter and Facebook and you’ll see “idiots” and “morons” linked to legislator more often than not.

And don’t get me started on much of the blogosphere.

So I try to remember something I picked up years ago when I prowled the Statehouse daily for news: A vast majority of these people work hard to represent their constituents, and not just those who voted for them.

A few weeks ago, I forgot this important point while standing in the Statehouse’s shadow. A friend was herding a dozen Harrison College students into the limestone for a day at the Legislature.

“You sure you want to do that to impressionable minds?” spilled flippantly from my mouth.

“What?” my friend said. “I can’t wait to show them how it works.”

My mental transmission shifted into reverse. I even apologized.

“You’re right,” I said. “More people need to see the sausage-making.”

We talked about how Will Rogers made a career of blasting politicians—a tradition as ancient as the Roman Forum. I told a favorite story about a long-ago Senate intern who told a radio reporter, “On the whole, [legislators] are not very smart, but they do represent Indiana.”

While it is hard to refute this during a session that featured a state representative who “did a little Web-based research” and found spurious “information” to base his opposition to a resolution honoring the Girl Scouts’ 100th anniversary, the intern’s assertion is only half right.

These folks do represent us. If we don’t like what we see reflecting from the Statehouse, my friend and I agreed, we ought to elect other people.

Ah, there’s the rub—gerrymandering. Over the last 20 years, computer technology has refined into a science the art of drawing districts packed with voters of one party or the other. Consultants make millions every decade showing legislators how to carve reliably Republican or determinate Democratic districts that ensure a majority—and power—for one party.

Democrats won power for most of 20 years in Indiana’s House of Representatives by drawing about 45 districts likely to elect someone from their party. Then they raised lots of money and recruited smart, charismatic candidates to carry enough districts to build a majority.

Last year, Republicans, who benefited from demographic changes that erased Democratic dominance in districts along the Ohio River, drew maps that are likely to ensure they’ll have power in the House for a long time.

The problem’s even more pronounced in the Senate, where Republicans hold a majority large enough that they can do business without any Democrats present if they’re so inclined.

This dominance is why Rep. Robert Morris, R-Fort Wayne, can so freely demonstrate his ignorance of the Girl Scouts without electoral repercussions. Morris garnered nearly 68 percent of the votes in his last race, which was against a well-qualified Democrat.

Gerrymandering, not the lack of a high intelligence quotient, stunts evolution of the General Assembly. As the process becomes more precise, caucus leaders are free to recruit candidates whose first allegiance is to those very leaders and not to their constituents back home.

You can bet that, if Morris were in a competitive district, he’d think twice before uttering his conspiratorial nonsense about the Girl Scouts. You can bet, too, that the legislative process would be more efficient and equitable if every legislator won election on the merits of his or her campaign and not because of living in a stacked district.

It’s time to draw compact districts and let the chips fall where they may.•

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Ketzenberger is president of the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, a not-for-profit dedicated to nonpartisan research into the state’s tax policies and budget practices. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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