KENNEDY: A chance to choose our lawmakers

July 16, 2016

Sheila Suess KennedyPolitical scientists have identified numerous negative consequences of partisan redistricting (aka gerrymandering). Recently, the Indiana House convened an interim study committee, chaired by Rep. Jerry Torr, to study the issue and make recommendations.

When legislators handle redistricting—the process of drawing new state legislative and federal congressional districts in the wake of each census—they are choosing their voters. Democratic theory suggests that it should be the other way around— voters are supposed to choose their representatives.

Ethicists charge that allowing legislators to draw their own districts is a conflict of interest.

I would argue that one of the frustrations fueling anger in today’s electorate is the realization by so many citizens that their votes don’t count. The American message has always been that we have political choice. If we don’t approve of the behavior of our political representatives, we can vote them out. Increasingly, that’s not true; gerrymandering has produced districts that would re-elect dead people if they ran with the correct political label.

Today’s U.S. House of Representatives is patently unrepresentative of the American public. In the last congressional cycle, Democrats garnered a million more votes than did the Republicans, who nevertheless remain firmly in control. (And thanks to checks and balances, able to obstruct and defeat policies favored by a popularly elected president.)

The goal of partisan redistricting is to draw as many “safe” seats as possible—more for the party in charge, of course, but also for the minority party, because in order to retain control, the winners need to cram as many of the losers into as few districts as possible, and those districts are also safe. While we have engaged in this effort since Vice President Elbridge Gerry’s time (and he signed the Declaration of Independence!), the advent of computers has made the process far, far more efficient.

Safe districts effectively disenfranchise the opposing party, leaving the primary as the only way to challenge an incumbent. In competitive districts, nominees know they have to appeal to the middle in order to win a general election. When the primary is, in effect, the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be highly ideological. Republican incumbents are thus challenged from the right and Democratic incumbents from the left.

Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for incumbents to satisfy the most rigid elements of their respective parties. In Congress, on the GOP side of the aisle, this has led to formation of what has been called the “Lunatic Caucus”—members unwilling to compromise even with their own party leaders.

As Michael Li of the Brennan Center told the study committee, the mechanics of redistricting are handled by teams from the national parties—technicians who manipulate data and computer programs, but know little about the politics or culture of whatever state they are carving up. That dependence on national party operatives has facilitated the ongoing shift of power from state politicians to national ones—further nationalizing America’s political parties.

Redistricting reform might not effect much change to the partisan composition of a state’s legislature, especially in very red or very blue states, but it does tend to change the nature of the partisans who hold those seats. In states using independent commissions, representatives of both parties tend to be less rigidly ideological and more willing to work across the aisle.

There are many other reasons to consider changing Indiana’s redistricting process. Let’s hope the study committee agrees.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI. She can be reached at skennedy@ibj.com.


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