Every now and again, a politician steps forward with an idea that has all the makings of an honest, nonpartisan solution to a great American problem. Sen. John McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold got pretty close to this ideal situation with their joint campaign finance reform efforts in 2001.
Regrettably, that doesn’t happen too often. More often that not, politicians are stuck on either the winning or losing sides of the aisle, and when it’s the losing side, they often toss divisive complaints to the winners that makes the divide feel even deeper.
Maybe the hottest “boring-for-most-people” topic of the political year is the attempts and pressures from both parties to redraw congressional district maps in a number of states. I myself yawned at the “controversy” over redistricting until I realized how many gray areas actually existed in this oddly relevant political debate.
Representative Tom Delay of Texas, the House majority leader, got himself a bit too much publicity in his 2003 charge to redraw Texas’ congressional districts. When Texas legislators did this at DeLay’s request, districts where Democrats were formerly elected from became redrawn to lean favorably toward the GOP, and four Democrats eventually lost their seats. Classy move, DeLay.
As hard as it is to admit, this isn’t just a Republican ploy, although Delay’s version of redistricting, called “gerrymandering,” is among the most obvious of a politicians’ abuse of congressional district drawing authority. Democrats have done this in many states, most notably in Georgia and California. In a fit of crooked revenge just last month, Republicans in Georgia redrew congressional maps yet again to favor GOP candidates in formerly Democratic-leaning districts.
This redistricting tactic has become a popular tool for legislators to use to keep their parties in office and weaken their opponents’ strength. Democrats in Illinois, New Mexico, and Louisiana, where they have the majorities in state legislatures, are going to try and stick it to the Republicans by redrawing their maps.
But when politicians begin practicing “eye for an eye” revenge tactics, as is the case in redistricting matters, you just know something has gone wrong.
Gov. Schwarzenegger is proposing what appears to be California’s solution to pressures from politicians who look to redraw voting districts statewide. His plan, which is similar to other reform plans in other states that look to correct this practice, calls for a nonpartisan three-judge panel to be in charge of all redistricting, as opposed to the California legislature.
This makes sense, as legislators from California are most definitely affected by redistricting. It seems an impossible conflict of interest to allow legislators to determine who should be counted inside their parties’ districts. In the same way congressmembers shouldn’t determine their own salaries directly, any other method simply isn’t appropriate, as there might come a time when a state legislator is asked to draw his friend from Washington out of a job.
Proponents of redistricting reform argue that doing so using nonpartisan methods will make for more competitive races in more districts and reduce the amount of tenured strangleholds on congressional seats by long-term incumbents. Responsible reform will make candidates fight for centrist voters, and that’s a good thing, proponents say.
And I’m inclined to agree. As long as candidates don’t compromise what they stand for to get voters, a little bit of competition never hurt the world of politics. It might even spawn the rise of alternate candidates who see things differently. The gray areas between candidates might become clearer, and people may be given the opportunity to more fully explore where they stand on issues. Sounds exciting.
So what’s the problem? In this game, there’s got to be one. No political measure this progressive is without its enemies, and in this case, the hypothetical enemies are legislators looking to keep things the way they are. Admittedly, they don’t really have much credence, and aren’t themselves that into the way things work now.
And that’s the point. Almost everyone, even the legislators themselves, think the redistricting system needs an overhaul. But like social security on a federal level, no one knows how to do it the right way, and no one involved is in a position to be trusted with it.
Schwarzenegger, leading the minority party in a heavily Democratic state, isn’t trustworthy in this manner, as good as his intentions may be. California Democrats won’t do it because they don’t really want to, as they only stand to lose seats in Congress if they do. And California Republicans can’t do it by themselves, and are as trustworthy as the governor.
It’s a noble effort without a noble proponent. So unless some prominent California Democrat comes out of the woodwork to support this initiative, it looks like Schwarzenegger will get his wish indirectly by taking this to the people in a ballot initiative later this year.
If that’s constantly the solution to problems like these, what is it we are paying these legislators for?