October 15, 2013
The government shutdown is reminiscent of the 1995-96 game of “chicken” between Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. That drama was resolved fairly quickly when it became clear the public had no patience for taking the government hostage, but gerrymandering ensures we will not see a quick resolution this time.
There are many reasons for our dysfunctional Congress, but one which is glaringly obvious is the way gerrymandered districts can produce unresponsive legislators unconcerned about working for the greater good. If citizens want to take away the ability of uncompromising extremists to tie our government in knots, we must reform redistricting in a way that encourages districts drawn to enhance competition.
There is plenty of evidence that maps drawn by partisan legislators have helped create the “suicide caucus” that is so intent on scoring political points instead of legislating. An analysis by The National Journal indicates that the number of Republicans elected from competitive districts has declined significantly since 1995, from 79 members then to 17 today. Extremists elected from safe districts not only have nothing to fear from refusing to compromise, they also have political incentive to keep this debacle going.
The way to stop gerrymandering is to shift from partisan state legislators to an independent citizens commission the job of drawing congressional and state legislative maps. Both political parties are guilty of gerrymandering districts to ensure their candidates’ re-election. Creating an independent, citizen-led commission would be a realistic solution to this issue. An Irvine Foundation study of California’s 2011 redistricting process indicates that California has been able to insulate its process from partisan control, with the result that voters and legislators praised the process for its inclusiveness and transparency.
Is there evidence of the impact of gerrymandering on congressional districts here in Indiana? Yes. Under the maps drawn in 2011, only two of nine districts are considered competitive, compared with four competitive ones under the old maps. Of course, Indiana cannot expect incumbent legislators, many of whom represent noncompetitive districts, to lead an effort to end gerrymandering. It will take a massive grass-roots effort to end this incumbent protection scheme.
That’s why Common Cause Indiana and League of Women Voters of Indianapolis have launched “Drawing a Line for Democracy,” a user-friendly resource guide to redistricting reform. We ask all Hoosiers who are fed up with gerrymandering and the dysfunction it encourages to notify Indiana General Assembly members that it is time to end the ultimate conflict of interest — allowing incumbent politicians to choose their voters, instead of the other way around.
Although the next round of redistricting in 2021 may seem distant, a transformed process must start today. The job will require a constitutional amendment, so we face the challenge of a statewide referendum as well. For this effort to succeed, huge numbers of informed voters must demand real reform. If the current circus in D.C. doesn’t motivate us to contact our legislators and insist on a plan for an independent redistricting commission in Indiana, what will?
(Julia Vaughn is policy director for Common Cause Indiana. Becca Beck is president of the Indianapolis League of Women Voters.)