Traverse City Record-Eagle

Opinion

October 31, 2013

Phil Power: Time to get serious about gerrymandering

If we’re going to save America from repeated near-disasters like this month’s war over the government shutdown and the near-default on our debt, we’ve got to have an urgent conversation about gerrymandering, both in Michigan and the entire nation.

Here’s why.

The practice of “gerrymandering” — drawing congressional and legislative districts to favor one political party or the other — is at the core of our deeply dysfunctional and hyper-partisan political system that produced the shutdown and nearly resulted in default.

Virtually all the tea party-backed, hard-right congressional representatives who provoked the recent crisis are from districts so heavily gerrymandered Republican that they’re in virtually no danger of voter backlash in a general election. If an incumbent’s seat is gerrymandered safe, there’s no political downside to adopting whatever radical ideology is fashionable at the moment.

Indeed, it could be a political plus, if it inoculates you against a primary challenge from someone even further right. Gerrymandering is an ancient and widespread institution, long used by politicians to protect incumbent politicians of both political parties.

These days it has been coupled with its enabling cousin, the partisan primary election, to contort our politics into hyperpartisan gridlock. Primaries provide the political leverage in a gerrymandered district so that the only election that counts is the primary.

What this means, for example, is that primary turnout is often low — usually about 15 to 20 percent of eligible voters — and comes mainly from fiercely partisan members of the party’s base — Republican or Democratic.

So if you’re a Republican candidate in a gerrymandered district, it makes political sense to be right-wing; Democrats in the same circumstances tend to pander to organized labor and left-wing groups. Politicians on both sides win the primaries by appealing to their partisan base, and the general elections are a shoo-in.

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