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Safe Districts Facilitate Congressional Stalemate

By Julia Vaughn on October 9, 2013 in Civic Blog

For those of us of a certain age, the current government shutdown is reminiscent of the 1995-1996 game of chicken between Democrat President Bill Clinton and Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich.  While that drama was resolved fairly quickly when it became clear the public had no patience for political gamesmanship taking the government hostage, thanks to gerrymandering we probably won’t see a quick resolution this time around.

There are many reasons for our dysfunctional Congress but on full display during the current stalemate is how gerrymandered districts lead to unresponsive legislators uninterested in working for the greater good. If we want to take away the ability of uncompromising extremists to tie our government up in knots, we must reform redistricting in a way that encourages districts drawn to enhance competition.

There is plenty of evidence that maps drawn by Republican-controlled legislators have helped create the “suicide caucus” so hell bent on scoring political points instead of legislating.  An analysis by The National Journal Republicans More Insulated Against Backlash – NationalJournal.com indicates that the number of Republicans elected from competitive districts has declined significantly since 1995; from 79 members then to 17 today.  Those Republicans elected from safe districts not only have nothing to fear from digging in their heels, they actually have a political incentive to keep this debacle going.

Indiana congressional DistrictsWe can certainly see evidence of the impact of gerrymandering on Congressional districts here in Indiana.  Under the maps drawn in 2011 by the Republican-controlled General Assembly there are only 2 districts considered competitive, compared to 4 competitive ones in the 1990s

The only way to stop gerrymandering is to take the job of drawing Congressional and state legislative maps away from partisan state legislators and to assign the task to an independent citizen’s commission.   We’ve got to make sure it’s truly independent by following California’s model and creating a process that the politicians can’t control through appointing the members of the Commission.

A study of California’s redistricting process in 2011 indicates they’ve been able to insulate their process from control by the major political parties as much as is possible for an inherently political undertaking.  New Report Commissioned by League of Women Voters of California, “When the People Draw the Lines,” Finds First-Ever Citizens Redistricting Commission Got the Job Done | League of Women Voters of California

Of course we can’t expect our state legislators, most of whom also represent non-competitive districts, to lead the effort to end gerrymandering.  It’s going to take a massive grassroots effort to end this incumbent protection scheme.   

That’s why Common Cause Indiana has joined with the League of Women Voters of Indianapolis to launch Drawing a Line for Democracy, a user friendly resource guide to redistricting reform.   We are asking all Hoosiers who are fed up with gerrymandering and the dysfunction it encourages to let the Indiana General Assembly know it’s time to end the ultimate conflict of interest – allowing incumbent politicians to choose the voters, instead of the other way around.  You can access the user guide here League of Women Voters of Indianapolis

While the next round of redistricting in 2021 might seem far off, if we are going to really reform the redistricting process we must start today.  Most pro-reform legislators believe it will take a Constitutional amendment and not just legislation to get the job done, so we face the challenge of a statewide referendum as well.

To be successful in this daunting effort we’ll need huge numbers of informed and energized Hoosiers demanding real reform.  If the current circus in D.C. doesn’t motivate us, I don’t know what will.

Julia Vaughn is the Policy Director for Common Cause Indiana. She joined the organization in 1995 and is responsible for policy development, lobbying, grassroots organizing and coalition building. Julia has a degree in telecommunications from Indiana University. She previously served as director of health policy for the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, and as director of Count Us IN, a project sponsored by the Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities to increase political participation by Hoosiers with disabilities.