After some $4 billion spent on the 2014 midterms, voter turnout is expected to be down again this Election Day. It’s no wonder. The past few years of ugly gridlocked bloodsport politics have driven many Americans out of the arena in disgust.
But there’s a stark disconnect between anti-incumbent anger at the least popular, most polarized, and least productive Congress in U.S. history and the 95 percent reelection rate most of the gutless wonders on Capitol Hill have come to expect.
Indeed, 77 members of Congress are facing no opposition at all this fall, depriving voters in their districts of any choice on Election Day. Of course turnout is down: For many voters, there’s no reason to show up.
This sick status quo is a result of the rigged system of redistricting. Every 10 years, after the Census, legislators get together and draw district lines in collusion. Politicians pick their people rather than people picking their politicians.
After winning the 2010 elections, Republicans drew enough safe seats to give them something close to a lock on the House of Representatives for the next decade. Two years later, Democrats won half a million more votes for Congress than Republicans did, but the GOP was able to keep control of the House easily. This corrupt bargain results in a decade-long stasis, with far-reaching implications.
In the South, for example, white congressional Democrats have been essentially redistricted out of existence, with Republican-controlled legislatures clustering oddly shaped minority districts in urban areas while leaving lily-white rural and suburban majorities for themselves.
Outcomes are similarly lopsided in swing states like Pennsylvania, where Democrats won 83,000 more votes statewide in the 2012 congressional elections and won five House seats, while Republicans won 13.
Usually, voters have to wait 10 years to have a chance to reform the rigged system of redistricting, and even then the party in power tends to live by the maxim “to the victor go the spoils.”
But this year, New Yorkers have a shot at making real changes through a ballot initiative sonorously known as Prop 1. It represents perhaps the last, best chance to reform the incumbent protection racket in the Empire State, taking the power from politicos and lobbyists with more independence and transparency than ever before.
First, consider the septic depth of the problem. New York has a 97 percent reelection rate for state lawmakers, although 28 elected officials have been forced from office on corruption charges over the past decade. You’re more likely to leave office in New York state in handcuffs than to lose a general election. No wonder the state ranks toward the bottom in voter turnout.
Every 10 years, the parties collude on district lines drafted by the Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader aided by lobbyists, doling out favors and punishing those rare independent-minded officials who break with the party line. The result is safe seats that lead to apathy and voter impotence, leading logically to ever-declining voter turnout. Overall, 46 percent of legislative incumbents, almost half, were uncontested in their reelection efforts. In central New York this year, there is no option other than the six incumbents on the ballot for state Senate.
But Prop 1 could be the turning point. Legislators and lobbyists would be kicked out of the process and replaced with an independent commission that ensures bipartisan and third-party representation, and a super-majority for passage. New rules would specifically forbid partisan gerrymandering, barring the favoring of incumbents while preserving common-sense communities of interest and protecting minority representation. No more cynically cutting opposition candidates out of a district for petty political purposes. More public input and transparency than ever before.
Not surprisingly, professional partisans hate Prop 1. What’s more surprising is how divided so-called good government groups in New York are over this plan to reform redistricting. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board of one of the groups supporting the effort, Citizens Union, but I’ve been writing in favor of redistricting reform for over a decade.)
So let’s take on the twin reasons for opposing Prop 1. The first comes fashionably cloaked in idealism, from self-styled political reformers who say this reform doesn’t go far enough. Reality check: Perfect is never on the menu, especially in Albany. Prop 1 is largely modeled on the exhaustively lauded reform in Iowa. In addition, New York’s reform would create an enforceable ban on partisan gerrymandering that would allow citizens to hold the legislature accountable by taking legislators to court if necessary. And unlike in California, which has frequent ballot propositions that amount to direct democracy—and which led to a successful redistricting reform earlier this decade—New York requires two consecutive votes of the state legislature on anything that could be considered a constitutional amendment. That happened under massive public pressure, led by the late New York City mayor Ed Koch, in the run-up to 2012. It won’t happen again anytime soon because it’s simply not in legislators’ general interest to give up power. So opposition to Prop 1 on allegedly idealistic grounds is essentially an endorsement of the status quo. Delay is denial.
The second reason is rarely heard in polite company but it’s the more honest and realistic reason: Liberal Democrats see their chance to run the table after 2020. Because the national GOP has moved so far right, New York is trending toward becoming a one-party state, and some of the deepest policy debates come from two competing wings of the Democratic Party. Redistricting reform could end up ensuring that Republicans and a handful of third parties keep a degree of influence via inclusion when it comes time to draw up the lines, rather than allowing Democrats to dominate all decisions.
But don’t take my word for it. Now indicted Democrat state Sen. Malcolm Smith explicitly said the same thing in 2010: “With the Democrats in control of the state Senate, we are going to draw the lines so that Republicans will be in oblivion in the state of New York for the next 20 years.”
Ballot propositions often seem like afterthoughts in elections, and the phrase “redistricting reform” can make even civically engaged eyes glaze over. But if you’re one of the millions of Americans sickened by the extreme polarization, hyper-partisanship, and gridlock that’s making a laughingstock of our democracy, you should care about the real-time fight for this fundamental election reform.
Don’t be fooled by high minded-sounding excuses for inaction. This is the best shot we’ve got for holding professional partisans accountable to the people. If we fail, the ugly, cynical situation is guaranteed to get worse for decades to come. If we succeed, the result will be more competitive general elections and increased voter turnout. For New Yorkers, the choice is yours and the time is now.