Sunday, February 5, 2012
The costs of redistricting
By Bill Kraus
Everybody knows what big money is doing to political campaigns, candidates, and politics itself. Most people don’t seem to like it. But five of the big nine on the Supreme Court do, and no one else counts.
Everyone also knows and dislikes the reconfirmation of the McLuhan premise that the medium is the message and that the campaign medium is TV commercials. Quick, simple/simplistic, pervasive. Most people don’t like this either, except, of course, the TV station owners and the producers and purveyors of commercials whose livelihood is dependent on or greatly enhanced by this phenomenon.
There is little or nothing that can be done about the flood of money masquerading as free speech or the popularity and power of TV as a medium.
There is another democracy destroying phenomenon, however, that is working below the radar of public notice that is doing as much or even more to diminish our democracy and the people we elect to run it.
It’s called redistricting. Redistricting determines which voters will get to vote for which candidates.
The rules are that each district will have the same number of voters, racial minorities will be given a chance at representation, the physical districts will be compact, and something called community of interest, which is vaguely defined, will be respected.
Competitiveness, if any, is not a criterion. If it happens, it will be inadvertently.
The hidden criterion is non-competitiveness. Given the high cost of campaigning and the fact that the burden of raising the necessary money needed to compete has fallen on the legislative leaders who have the blue chips in this mostly white chip game, non-competitiveness is more than a criterion. It’s an objective.
When one party controls the legislature and the executive office, that party will create as many safe seats for their candidates as the courts (who are charged with enforcing the aforementioned rules) will allow.
When power is split within the legislature, collusion raises its ugly head. Party leaders scratch each others' backs in pursuit of safe seats for both. This has been most visible at the congressional level in Wisconsin. After the 2000 census, the 1st and 2nd districts, which had been competitive, were rearranged in ways to make one safer for a Democrat and the other for a Republican. After the 2010 census, collusion led to a 3rd district which was more Democratic and the neighboring 7th district which became more friendly for the Republicans.
This is a diverse country, but we do tend to cluster. Ethnically, economically, racially, and politically. This makes reducing the number of districts which are truly competitive possible. In a few areas it is inevitable. But should it be an objective? I don’t think so.
The consequence of conceding or advancing party preferences is that we are elevating the importance of primary elections and making more general elections irrelevant. Fewer people vote in primaries, and those who do vote are usually more partisan and predictable. The less committed, less rabid voters tend to wait till November. This is too late in too many places. The November results are more and more a foregone conclusion in legislative races.
Redistricting in the hands of the incumbents has filled a lot of safe seats with too many unambitious ideologues who are interested less in governing than in staying in office.
This diminishes an honorable trade which attracts superior people into the Congress and legislatures we have come to love to hate.
The route back to putting problems not political advantage on the top of the priority lists of those elected to represent us starts with competitive general elections.
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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board