The Real Scandal of American Politics (Hint: It’s Not “Weiner-Gate”)

Partisan redistricting – which by definition disenfranchises tens of millions of voters -- is the real scandal of American politics. We can slay the gerrymander and abolish “designer districts” without amending the Constitution.
By: Matthew Cossolotto, The Podium Pro
 
 
Matthew Cossolotto, author and former Hill aide
Matthew Cossolotto, author and former Hill aide
 
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Scandal
Redistricting
Gerrymandering
Elections
Voter Turnout
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June 5, 2011 - PRLog -- The Real Scandal of American Politics (Hint:  It’s Not “Weiner-Gate”)

By Matthew Cossolotto

They’re at it again.  In state capitals around the country -- from Boston to Baton Rouge, from Austin to Albany, from Salem to St. Paul -- the proverbial foxes are guarding the chicken coop of representative democracy.  

And the media, currently so mesmerized by “Weiner-Gate,” have largely been silent on what is clearly the biggest, regularly recurring scandal in American politics.

I’m talking about the redistricting process -- often referred to as “gerrymandering” – which involves the creation of hand-crafted “designer districts” that will largely determine the outcome of upcoming elections at the local, state and federal levels around the country.  The partisan balance of power in the US House of Representatives for years to come will be decided first and foremost not by voters at the polls but by partisan leaders who are busy right now carving up election districts to suit their narrow electoral needs.  

All of this is happening, mind you, before a single vote has been cast.  Partisan leaders in states around the country are carving up political territories like victors carving up the spoils of war.  Is this democracy in action?  Hardly.

Gerrymandering gets its name from Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, who signed a highly partisan redistricting law in 1812 that created an oddly shaped district resembling nothing so much as a slender, slinking, curving salamander – hence the “gerrymander” was born.

For the good of our democracy, we should slay the gerrymander once and for all.  To do that, we need to remove elected politicians -- who have a clear conflict of interest when it comes to the shape of future districts -- from the redistricting process and put voters firmly in the driver’s seat.    

Right now, voters don’t even qualify as backseat drivers in redistricting.  In fact, voters are being taken for a ride.  The redistricting system currently in place in virtually every state in the union allows political leaders to select the voters they want, instead of the other way around.  In effect, through partisan redistricting politicians are able to stack the deck.  They pre-determine election results.  In effect, they stuff the ballot box long before the first vote is cast.  

That’s why it’s so easy for commentators to refer to a “safe” seat for this party or to a district that’s “leaning” toward one party or the other.  We recently witnessed the unexpected victory of a Democratic congressional candidate in New York’s 26th Congressional District, a district that news accounts typically described as a reliably “red” district that had voted Republican for decades.  

The very idea of a “safe” seat for one party or another should be anathema to a vibrant democracy.   But for some inexplicable reason it seems to be an accepted fact of political life that legislative districts should come with a label – either conservative or liberal, red or blue, Republican or Democratic.  

In congressional elections every two years, there are seldom more than 30 or 40 truly competitive races out of a total of 435.  After the redistricting process is completed this time around, there will be a mere handful of truly competitive districts in subsequent elections.  The deck will be stacked, hundreds of “designer districts” drawn by the party in power in state capitals around the country.    

What’s the key to meaningful, pro-democracy change?   Heightened public interest and media coverage are crucial starting points.  Beyond that, Congress should take the redistricting process out of the hands of self-interested politicians and establish a process driven by non-political criteria.  Iowa’s system of non-partisan redistricting could serve as a model.  California's new citizens commission approach may also prove successful.  

Ultimately, the real solution is to create a more competitive, free-market politics.  That means scrapping our outmoded "winner-take-all" voting system and adopting some form of proportional voting – widely used by other mature democracies.  Under proportional systems -- which rely on larger, multi-member districts -- voters have the power to “redistrict” themselves simply by voting for a candidate or party of their choice.  

Proportional voting liberates voters from the narrow confines of artificial, single-member, winner-take-all districts whose boundary lines are too often drawn by and for the benefit of incumbents and other partisans.  Congress should at least grant states the right to experiment with alternative voting systems and multi-member districts for congressional elections.

Here’s a short list of additional steps we could take to reinvigorate our democracy and reduce our representation deficit.  We should demand action from Congress on the following items.
•   Form a broadly representative, nonpartisan national commission to consider a full range of pro-democracy reforms.
•   Make Election Day a national holiday.  This will boost turnout and send the message that we truly value voter participation and celebration voting as a civic responsibility.
•   Enact meaningful campaign finance reform to mitigate the obscene amount of money it takes to run for political office.
•   Finally, increase the size of the House of Representatives. The Constitution envisioned increasing the House every ten years to keep pace with population growth. But we’ve had 435 Members of the House since 1912, when our national population was a mere 100 million. We just passed the 310 million mark!  It’s time to increase the supply of representation.

Partisan redistricting – which by definition disenfranchises tens of millions of voters -- is the real scandal of American politics.  The public and the media should focus more on this scandal than Congressman Weiner’s Twitter photo.  The good news is we can slay the gerrymander and abolish “designer districts” without amending the Constitution.  It’s time for Congress to put voters in the driver’s seat of our democracy.

# # #

About Matthew Cossolotto: Creator of “Make A Promise Day” (May 4th), Matthew Cossolotto (aka “The Podium Pro”) is an author, guest speaker, CEO-level speechwriter, and speech coach. A former aide to House Speaker Jim Wright and Congressman Leon Panetta, Matthew also served as a CEO speechwriter at MCI, Pepsi-Cola International, and GTE. His line-up of leadership communications services includes:
• Executive Speechwriting
• One-on-One Speech Coaching
• Strategic Messaging/Ghostwriting/Media Relations
• PodiumPower! Keynotes and Workshops
The author of All The World’s A Podium, HabitForce! and The Almanac of European Politics, he’s working on a new book with a foreword by Jack Canfield titled The Power of Making a Promise. Matthew brings his Personal Empowerment Programs — “PEPTalks”– to a wide range of audiences including colleges, nonprofits, associations, agencies, and corporations. Visit http://www.ThePodiumPro.com; http://www.MakeAPromiseDay.com.
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Tags:Politics, Scandal, Redistricting, Gerrymandering, Elections, Voter Turnout, Representation, Congress, Reform, Democracy
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