Friday, May 7, 2004

In the heyday of communism, lots of countries held regular elections but never seemed to vote anyone out of office. The people in power always won. The “democratic” procedures were just a facade disguising the irrelevance of the people. Back then, Americans felt our system was superior, because we could actually remove our lawmakers.

But like the Cold War, that system is just a dim memory. Americans continue to have the forms of democracy, but the substance has mostly evaporated. And thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision, restoring it will not be easy.

Today, someone ensconced in the U.S. House of Representatives has a better chance of being struck by lightning while holding a winning Powerball ticket than he does of being evicted by a challenger. It was not always so. In 1972, 1982 and 1992, an average of 22 incumbent House members lost general election races. In 2002, however, only eight did, and four of those lost to other incumbents.

In most districts, voters have almost no chance of removing a sitting legislator. In 2002, 91 percent of the winners in House races won by a landslide (at least 10 percentage points), and 81 percent won by 20 points or more. As a brief filed by several “public interest” groups in the Supreme Court case notes, nine out of every 10 Americans “live in congressional districts that are essentially one-party monopolies.” Sort of like the old Soviet Union.

Congressional districts are now brilliantly designed to prevent competition. In some states, the party in power draws the lines to maximize its representation and shaft the other guys. In Pennsylvania, Republicans figured out a way to divide up the state to give them a 12-7 majority of seats, even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans.

In other states, the two parties unite to protect all incumbents. A case in point is California. Of its 53 House races in 2002, only one was competitive.

Gerrymandering has been a part of our political order for more than 200 years. But thanks to modern technology, it now bears about as much resemblance to the original type as an M-16 does to a musket.

The Pennsylvania redistricting plan was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court. But it was too much to hope the court would stop politicians from blockading themselves in office. By a 5-4 vote, the justices sent a signal they are rarely if ever inclined to overrule elected bodies on this subject.

Often it’s good for the courts to stay out of political disputes, letting them be settled by the people through elected institutions. But in this case, the democratic institutions have been drained of their democratic essence. If you don’t like it that you can’t vote your representative out of office, what are you supposed to do? Vote your representative out of office?

As if the situation weren’t dire enough, some politicians want to redistrict more frequently than once a decade, which has long been the custom, so they can lock in any transient success at the polls. In Texas, the GOP-dominated legislature came up with a new map last year, replacing the one created in 2001. The goal is to let Republicans gain as many as seven additional seats in this year’s elections.

How can voters regain the central role they’re supposed to have? One option is to divide power at the state level. A Democratic governor can check a Republican legislature, preventing either party from dominating the process. But in that case, elected officials may safeguard the party they cherish most — the Incumbent Party.

The best hope lies in more direct methods. Four years ago, Arizona voters approved a ballot initiative taking redistricting away from the legislature and giving it to an appointed commission. A California legislator has proposed a referendum to turn it over to a three-judge panel.

But no state has matched Iowa’s success. There, the task falls on the nonpartisan Legislative Service Bureau, which in drawing up districts is not allowed to factor in voting patterns and other political information. The result is that in 2002, with just five House seats, Iowa had three competitive races.

Today, thanks to gerrymandering, we have government by the consent of governors. If Americans want to live in a democracy worthy of the name, they need to find ways to curb the excesses of partisan redistricting. That, or move to Iowa.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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