Most people agree that our politics and government today are too often severely dysfunctional. And there’s one big reason why:
The taproot of much of all this can be traced to our severely gerrymandered state legislative and congressional districts.
For a glimpse of just how powerful this is, all you have to do is glance at November’s national election results.
Nationwide, state legislators are required to draw new boundary lines every 10 years, after the Census results are in. This time, Democrats mainly got the short end of the stick.
That’s because Republicans made big gains in most state legislatures in the 2010 election. That meant they controlled the process of drawing district lines in most states – and they made sure they drew those lines to their advantage.
Here’s proof: Final results show that, nationwide, Democratic House candidates this year won 59.6 million votes, to only 58.2 million for Republicans. Yet Republicans emerged with solid control of the U.S. House of Representatives by 234 seats to 201 seats.
This also was reflected – perhaps even more so -- in state legislative returns.
In Michigan, where President Obama won by 9.5 percentage points, Republican legislative candidates drew only 45 percent of the popular vote, but won 54 percent of the seats in the Michigan House of Representatives.
That’s not to imply Democrats would do things differently. In fact, in Illinois, one of a minority of states where legislative Democrats controlled reapportionment, GOP candidates for Congress won 45 percent of the vote, but only a third of the seats. In Maryland, another state where Democrats drew the lines, Republicans won 35 percent, but only one of eight U.S. House seats.
Two centuries of manipulation
“Gerrymandering” is a well-established political concept.
The term goes back to 1812, when the Boston Gazette coined the term to mock then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry’s attempts to manipulate Massachusetts senatorial districts to favor his party. An editorial cartoon showed how the boundary lines had twisted the districts into something resembling a salamander – the “gerrymander.”
But while there’s always been some of this, it has gotten worse and more blatant. The dean of the U. S. House of Representatives, Michigan’s John D. Dingell, D-Dearborn, told me that he thinks there are now only about 35 truly competitive congressional districts in the United States. Experts in Lansing figure maybe only 20 percent of Michigan’s legislative districts are evenly balanced.
Nate Silver, the election polling expert at the New York Times, explains that, “In 1992, there were 103 members of the United States House of Representatives elected from might be called swing districts.”
He estimates there are only 35 such districts remaining.
Much of the time, gerrymandering has been used to protect incumbents. As an example, take Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, which includes communities in western Wayne and southern Oakland Counties. It was explicitly designed as a Republican district to protect then-Congressman Thaddeus McCotter. Once regarded as a rising star of his party, McCotter resigned last year after a scandal in which his staff submitted fraudulent nominating petitions.
Trouble is, fewer competitive districts tend to mean greater political polarization.
Sometimes that’s the natural result of population trends that tend to clump people who think and vote alike into the same areas. Jowei Chen, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan, calls it “unintentional gerrymandering,” because it’s based on demographic patterns that lead many Democrats to choose to live in densely packed urban areas.
Lawmakers elected from gerrymandered, one-party districts have no incentive to compromise with others for the general good. In fact, as representatives from lopsided partisan districts, their main incentive is to vote the attitudes of their constituents -- no matter what.
Much has been made, for example, of the 40 to 60 Tea Party Republican members of Congress who have hobbled Speaker John Boehner’s attempts to forge a grand bargain on taxes and spending with President Obama. Appeals for them to vote for the general good of the country have fallen on deaf ears.
That’s partly because for many representatives from one-party districts, the main political concern is not the general election, but being unseated in the primary. Most “safe seat” Republicans fear primary opposition from the right; Democrats, from their left.
Everywhere I go these days, people are snarling about the gridlock in Washington. Fair enough. But if we’re to have a more effective political system in our country and in our state, the best way by far to do it is by attacking gerrymandering.
There are a few states that manage to do redistricting with a nonpartisan or equally balanced commission. But in Michigan, efforts to design a fairer, less poisonously partisan system have failed, so far.
For the sake of democracy, we should try again.
Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.