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.
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.
Most experts agree there are very few truly competitive congressional districts in America, perhaps as few as 40 out of a total of 435. According to Michigan Congressman John Dingell, D-Dearborn, the longest-serving member in history, gerrymandering represents a big part of what happened in Washington over the past few weeks. “Some of the Republican members form heavily gerrymandered districts have nothing to fear from voters in a general election; everything is determined by the primary,” he told me.
Richard McLellan, a heavy-duty Republican if ever there was one, agrees. So does Mark Grebner, head of Practical Political Consulting in East Lansing and one of the smartest political thinkers in this state. In Michigan, he counts as gerrymandered Republican at least three congressional districts, four or five state senate seats and at least 10 state house districts.
The only good thing emerging from the recent mess in Washington is a new realization of and focus on the malign influence of gerrymandering on American politics.
But the more essential and complicated question is what to do about it. Many urge we take the drawing of district lines out of the hands of politicians (usually state legislators) and give the job to independent nonpartisan folks like retired judges.
This is the system adopted in Iowa, where there is some evidence it has reduced overt partisanship in drawing lines. Maybe so, but I still think it’s naïve to believe you can ever totally take politics out of redistricting, the most political act of all.
Grebner proposes a similar alternative: Pass a redistricting law that prohibits any political considerations in drawing congressional or legislative districts. “Put criminal penalties on violations,” Grebner says, while also admitting the idea is pretty radical. And I’m not sure how a jury will decide what constitutes a “political consideration.”
Another possibility would be to adopt the “open primary” system, in which candidates for office run in primary elections just as they do now, but in which the two top vote getters — whether a Republican and a Democrat, or both Republicans, or both Democrats — run against each other in the fall general election.
That way, both candidates wanting to maximize their total vote would have compelling political reasons to reach beyond their narrow base to members of the other party or Independents. This system is under trial in California, where it’s resulted in the defeat of two liberal congressmen who didn’t reach beyond the Democratic base.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Unless we cut the cancer of gerrymandering out of the core of our political system, our days as a great nation are numbered, doomed by a dysfunctional, hyper-partisan and crisis-prone politics. We need a serious conversation about reforming this practice, and it needs to start right now.
Phil Power is a former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent. He is founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a centrist think-and-do tank. The opinions expressed here are his own. By email at: ppower@thecenterformichigan. net.