Thursday, September 8, 2011

How safe Congressional districts contribute to gridlock and how to fix it

This is the unedited version of my 9/7/2011 column that appeared in the print edition of the Sky Hi Daily News.  The unline version has not yet been posted.

Do you really want to change the way Washington works?  Angry with the gridlock and control by  members  of  the House of Representatives or even state legislatures  who draw a line in cement and refuse to budge? The cure  could lie in making districts more competitive .
There is a controversy   shaping up in redistricting  Colorado’s  6th  Congressional district held by Republican Mike Coffman that illustrates how making a district more competitive could  blunt   vitriolic partisanship and unwillingness to compromise.
There is a rule of political science in play here that applies to all levels of districts:   the more a district is  divided equally among  parties and interest groups,  the more a candidate has to appeal to a wider variety of factions in order to put together a winning majority vote. Compromise is forced to take place at the lowest level .  Waiting until the elected candidate gets into office means that to compromise might require backing down on a  campaign promise and risk  losing the next election.  
 Incumbents elected from safe districts have a greater chance of getting re-elected  provided  they are  able to fight off primary challengers. The more they  stick by campaign promises , the more likely they will retain their seats.  This certainly makes compromise less likely.
Political parties understandably  strive to carve out safe seats in areas where  their party  registration dominates.  In 1985 the Supreme Court ruled manipulating boundaries to give one party an advantage was unconstitutional.  As a result, judges tend to look more favorably on competitive districts if they are asked to rule on competing plans .  In spite of this, of 435 Congressional seats, the Congressional Quarterly found 359 safe. i
To keep up with population shifts reflected in the census, redistricting is required every ten years. Because Colorado Democrats and Republicans could not agree in the state legislature on  Congressional  boundaries last spring, redistricting will be in the hands of the courts.
The State Supreme Court  will review a redistricting commission proposal  this fall for  how the state legislative boundaries will be drawn, including whether Grand County will be put in a solely west slope state house  district or straddle the continental divide  with some eastern counties.
  Given Grand County’s predominantly  Republican registration, being placed with  more Democratic leaning eastern counties  in a state house district might be seen more favorably  by judges as making for a more competitive district , with an eye to higher court decisions,   though the state constitution does not list the degree of  competition as a criteria.
 The US Congressional district boundaries will also be decided this fall, but  in federa l Denver District Court because both political parties and Hispanics have sued.   Some criteria judges will  use  are whether  districts are more competitive and whether Hispanic voices are being given short shrift in representation, contrary to the Voting Rights Act.
 Rep. Mike Coffman  recently advocated  restricting  bilingual ballots in the name of cost cutting . The Hispanic community, already angered by  Republican’s over the top anti immigration reform positions , took his proposal as an attempt to make it harder for Hispanics to vote.  The Democratic  Party immediately put forth their plan to Denver  District Court that would have changed Coffman’s currently heavily  Republican  district boundaries to include more Hispanics  and to make this district more competitive, divided equally between Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.
Both increasing competitiveness and Hispanic representation are strong  arguments that could sway a judge to rule in favor of  plans submitted by  Democrats and Hispanics.  That could force  Coffman, a party line loyalist,  to  appeal to a wider variety of ideologies  and special  interests  to win  his upcoming 2012 race.  
If enough  redistricting decisions in ours and in other states  decrease the number of safe districts,  eventually we could  change the polarization plaguing Washington and other legislative bodies . Of course,  in the short term, the best route would be for  voters themselves to kick out  those unwilling to compromise.

No comments:

Post a Comment