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One Thing We Can Do

By Sheila Suess Kennedy on October 7, 2013 in Civic Blog

There isn’t much that rational Republicans and Democrats can do about today’s zealots. John Boehner has obviously lost control of both the “suicide caucus” and his mind. But we can—and should—avoid repeats of this hostage situation created by extremists who owe their elections not to fair elections but to gerrymandering.

In Indiana, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause have launched “Rethinking Redistricting: Drawing a Line for Democracy,” a project designed to ensure that “voters choose their legislators instead of legislators choosing their voters.” They hope to generate a popular movement to amend the Indiana Constitution and require an independent redistricting commission.

A small but important step on the long road back to sanity.

113th_US_House_svgReform will be difficult. Both parties are invested in the current system. The only way change will occur is in response to a true grass-roots movement, and in order to generate that movement, ordinary citizens will need to understand how the practice of partisan redistricting undermines democratic accountability.

In order to increase public understanding of the problems, “Rethinking Redistricting” plans to conduct a broad educational campaign via “conversation circles,” a time-honored approach to retail politics. Attendees will discuss the most harmful effects of our current system, which virtually ensures that few districts will actually be competitive. (In 2012, only two of Indiana’s Congressional districts were considered competitive.)

When a result is predetermined—when a citizen’s vote is unlikely to affect the outcome—citizens don’t vote. And in Indiana, they don’t. The 2011 Civic Health Index ranked Indiana 48th in the nation for voter turnout.

Worse, with lack of competition comes polarization. Republicans don’t fear Democratic opposition, they fear primary challenges from the Right; Democrats don’t worry about Republicans; they worry about attacks from the Left. The current system thus destroys incentives to work across the aisle, to be reasonable, to negotiate and find acceptable compromises.

The current system has given us the Tea Party debacle we are currently seeing. Thanks to gerrymandering, despite the fact that Democratic candidates for Congress got a million more votes than Republicans in the last election, Republicans retained control of the House. The cost was high: election of 80 Representatives from deep Red districts, drawn to be impervious to competition and thoroughly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, that comprise what has been dubbed “the suicide caucus.”

Even within today’s radical GOP, they represent a minority view.

According to the Cook Political Report, Representatives in the suicide caucus were elected with fourteen and a half million votes, or twelve percent of the votes cast in the 2012 elections. They represent fifty-eight million constituents—eighteen percent of the population. Seventy-six of them are male, seventy-nine white.

None of them represent the sane American middle.

Call your local League of Women Voters rep, or Julia Vaughn at Common Cause. Host a conversation, call your State Senator and Representative. Let’s do something really radical, and let Indiana voters choose their representatives rather than the other way around.

Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Director of the Center for Civic Literacy and Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include six books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Business Journal and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals.

This post was originally published at sheilakennedy.net on October 1st and is republished here with the author’s permission.

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