The middle has disappeared in much of Congress, and in many state legislatures. It has a lot to do with partisan gerrymandering during redistricting.
In as many as 85 percent of congressional seats, and quite a few state legislative seats, districts are so tilted for the Republicans, or in fewer cases, for Democrats, that the district’s primary winner’s victory in the general election is a foregone conclusion.
Gerrymandering – drawing districts in a legislative body to favor one party over another – has gone on for centuries.
The term was coined after Massachusetts Gov. Eldridge Gerry signed a redistricting law in 1812.
The new map created districts that packed Federalist Party senators into a few districts, which allowed more representation to Gerry’s own Democratic-Republicans.
One district resembled a salamander. That led Boston Gazette cartoonist Elkanah Tisdale to draw a satirical cartoon that nicknamed the new configuration “The Gerry-mander.”
In the 1960s, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions produced the “one person, one vote” concept that districts should be as equal in population as possible.
So states had to draw new districts to reflect that urban population growth had packed existing districts, which resulted in giving rural voters more power per vote than city dwellers.
Add to that a series of other developments – adding affirmative action to the voting rights act; requiring single-member districts in urban counties, rather than at-large districts, where every district in a county was decided county-wide, by place; the growing use of computers to make precision maps; – gave whichever party was in control an opportunity to gerrymander to tilt the table to favor their side.
The political problem is created when, for example, Republicans control the redistricting process in a state, and draw districts to favor them, at the expense of the Democrats.
They either break up areas of Democratic strength – called “cracking” – or cram as many Democrats into a district as possible — called “packing” – to produce districts that almost always are decided in the primary elections rather than the general election.
The result is that the Republicans get more representation than they deserve, and the Democrats get less. Of course, Democrats, if they are in charge, can do this to the Republicans, and often have.
There are court cases awaiting meaningful attention from the U.S. Supreme Court about alleged partisan gerrymandering by both political parties, depending on which is in control in a particular state.
The problem with these partisan gerrymanders is that by creating a situation where districts can be won only by a Republican, or by a Democrat, all the competition is in one party’s primary or the other.
That results in the district’s representation being pushed to the right in a Republican district and to the left in a Democratic district.
Thus the extremes on each side of the political aisle are in charge, and more moderate voters are ignored. The middle disappears, and common-sense government actions that satisfy a broad cross-section of people are tough to achieve.
Which often produces gridlock.
The situation caused former President Barack Obama to make it a major topic of his final state-of-the-union address to the congress. And he helped provide the impetus for his attorney general, Eric Holder, to head up a group called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC).
It organized in 2016, and launched simultaneously with the start of the presidency of Donald Trump in 2017.
Dave McNeely is the editorial page editor at the Austin-American Statesman. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The NDRC has targeted districting in 12 states, including Texas, and has another six on its watch list.
The effort in those states is to do everything possible to prepare to block partisan gerrymandering, supposedly by either party, when new congressional and legislative districts are drawn in 2021 after the 2020 census.
So, however the Nov. 6 elections came out, in Texas and other states, look for the NDRC to actively monitor and try to level the political playing field.
That particularly includes states like Texas, where, since Republicans gained control of the redistricting process in 2001, partisan gerrymandering has been performed with a vengeance.
On the positive side, as of 2017, independent redistricting commissions existed in six states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana and Washington).
Four other states were deciding at the Nov. 6 election on proposed redistricting commissions (Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah).
And there is action in several other states to do everything possible to remove partisanship from the redistricting process.
How successful that effort is remains to be seen as the impacts of the Nov. 6 elections are felt, and the 2020 elections, that will choose many of the legislators and governors who will control redistricting in the states without independent commissions.
Contact McNeely at email@example.com.