Sheila Kennedy: Challenges to democracy come from within

Keywords Opinion / Viewpoint

kennedy-sheila-takingissue-2018The recent midterm elections exposed persistent problems in the way elections are administered across the country.

It isn’t just Florida, although that state does remain a poster child for electoral ineptitude. In The Washington Post, Ron Klain recently identified three critical challenges to American democracy: We allow “interested” officials to supervise elections, we entrust the electoral process to amateurs and incompetents, and state election systems are poorly run and underfunded.

The recent midterms dramatically highlighted the first of these challenges. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp supervised the election in which he was running for governor, and in Kansas, so did Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Talk about egregious conflicts of interest.

But let’s be honest: Such conflicts also exist when partisan officials who aren’t running for office oversee elections. Those officials have, as the saying goes, “a dog in the fight,” and significant incentives to game the process to favor their political party’s candidates.

Here in Indiana, it took a lawsuit by Common Cause to get satellite early-voting sites in Marion County. There were problems counting ballots in Porter County, and elsewhere. But Indiana’s biggest election problem by far is the Legislature’s stubborn refusal to abandon gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering is a frontal assault on democracy. A pre-midterm electoral analysis from the Cook Report really brought home the extent of that assault: Just one out of 20 Americans lives in a competitive Congressional District.

Think about that for a minute.

How did we get to a place where—as Common Cause puts it—legislators are choosing their voters rather than the other way around?

The lack of competitiveness that is the most obvious consequence of gerrymandering breeds voter apathy and reduced political participation. Why vote or volunteer when the result is foreordained? Gerrymandering also makes it difficult to recruit credible candidates to run on the ticket of the “sure loser” party. As a result, in many of these races, even when there are competing candidates on the general election ballot, the reality is often a “choice” between a heavily favored incumbent and a marginal candidate.

We hear a lot about voter apathy, as if it were a moral deficiency of the voters. Instead, it might be a highly rational response to noncompetitive politics. Watch those same “apathetic” folks at a local zoning hearing when a liquor store wants to go in down the street. Rational people save their efforts for places where those efforts count; absent a “wave” large enough to overcome gerrymandering, those places often do not include the voting booth.

The most pernicious result of gerrymandering, however, is the polarization of American politics.

When a district is safe for one party, the only way to oppose an incumbent is in the primary—and that almost always means the challenge will come from the “flank,” or extreme. When the primary is effectively the general election, the battle takes place among the party faithful, who also tend to be the most ideological of voters. Republican incumbents will be challenged by the right and Democratic incumbents will be attacked from the left.

Even where those challenges fail, they leave a powerful incentive for the incumbent to toe the line, to placate the most rigid elements of the party. We end up with elected officials chosen by the most extreme voters on each side of the philosophical divide.

Colorado, Michigan and Missouri just eliminated gerrymandering in favor of nonpartisan redistricting. It is past time for Indiana to do the same.•


Kennedy is a professor of law and public policy at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI.

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