BY THE END of next year, if all goes well, Iraq will be governed by lawmakers chosen in free and competitive elections. That will give the Iraqi people something the vast majority of Americans don't have: lawmakers chosen in free and competitive elections.
We tell ourselves that we live in the world's greatest democracy, one whose government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. In fact we live in nothing of the sort, at least as far as our national legislature is concerned. Thanks to modern gerrymandering, most congressional districts have been turned into a Democratic or Republican monopolies -- constituencies meticulously mapped to lock in one-party supermajorities and guarantee election results long before voters go to the polls.
The race for president may be a nail-biter, but the outcome of all but a handful of congressional races is a foregone conclusion: The incumbent will be re-elected. All 435 US House seats are on the ballot this November, but no more than 30 or so are genuinely up for grabs. Of California's 53 districts, only one could arguably go either way. Only two out of 29 districts in New York are in play. Only one out of 25 in Forida.
In 1994, 90 percent of US House members running for re-election retained their seats. That, believe it or not, marked something of a modern high-water mark for electoral competitiveness. In 1996, the incumbent re-election rate was up to 94 percent. Two years later, it hit 98 percent. It has been there ever since.
In 2002, a grand total of eight representatives lost their bids for re-election. Close to one-fifth of the House had no major-party opposition. So blatantly are districts gerrymandered to maximize a majority for one party or the other that the average winning candidate receives more than 70 percent of the vote. The framers of the Constitution designed the House of Representatives to be the most responsive branch of government, the one most likely to change with shifts in public opinion. They would not recognize the undemocratic body of lawmakers-for-life it has become. But veterans of the old Supreme Soviet certainly would.
Redistricting abuse is as old as the Republic. In 1812, when Republican Elbridge Gerry was governor of Massachusetts, his allies in the Legislature redrew the state's congressional map to favor their party at the expense of the Federalists. Outraged Federalists denounced the new map's oddly shaped districts, especially one in Essex County that resembled a salamander. One cartoonist drew it with a head, wings, and claws, and mockingly dubbed it a Gerry-mander.
Alas, gerrymanders cannot be killed by mockery. The politicians of 1812 are gone, but their 21st-century successors are still torturing electoral maps for partisan advantage. Rarely do voters today get a chance to pick their lawmakers. On the contrary, it is lawmakers -- armed with sophisticated computer software and databases -- who pick their voters. Invincible incumbents are one result. Freakish-looking districts are another. But those aren't the only ill effects.
As elections become increasingly meaningless, fewer citizens bother to vote. As incumbency becomes a permanent entitlement, fewer challengers bother to run. With no fear of losing, lawmakers become more arrogant and imperious, less open to compromise. Why moderate your stance or reach out to the center when there is no penalty to pay for digging in your heels and taking a hard line? It isn't negative advertising or special-interest money that makes Congress so polarized and dysfunctional. It is the disappearance of competitive elections thanks to hyperpartisan redistricting.
The rancor caused by gerrymandering run amok isn't limited to Washington. When Texas Republicans redrew House seats last year for the second time since 2000, furious Democrats fled the state to deny the GOP the quorum it needed in the legislature. Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Georgia are some of the other states where political storms have erupted over egregious redistricting power plays.
The solution to all this is obvious: Take the mapping power away from the politicians and give it to an independent commission instead. Several states already do this, most notably Iowa, which entrusts redistricting to its Legislative Service Bureau, a neutral agency. The bureau is required by law to draw districts that are equal in population, don't divide towns or counties, and are compact and contiguous -- all without regard to party registration or any other political data. Result? Iowa districts are consistently more competitive than those in most of the country.
Voices on both sides of the political divide are increasingly urging the states to adopt the Iowa solution. The spirit of reform has sprouted even in Massachusetts, where Common Cause is building support for a constitutional amendment to create an independent mapmaking commission. Sure, the birth of democracy in Iraq would be a fine development, but an end to election-rigging in the state that gave "gerrymander" to the English language? Now that would really be something to see.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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