You don’t have to listen to me; listen, if you prefer, to Karl Rove.
Six weeks ago, I wrote a post that argued that anybody who wants to end the bitter partisanship that has metastasized in Washington shouldn’t direct his or her protests to the White House or to Congress, but should instead address their state capitals. That’s because next year, after the census is complete, the state legislatures will redraw the congressional district lines. If past is prologue, strenuous efforts will be made by whatever party controls any given legislature to create safe Congressional seats–districts where their party enjoys an unbeatable majority. Well, that may be good for them, but it’s terrible for us, and it’s terrible for democracy. It creates districts where the representatives have only to please the hard core of their own party and don’t have to do much if anything to attract voters from the other party. The representatives become hardened in their positions, and strident in their arguments. Compromise evaporates. We end up with a Washington where the parties can’t, don’t and won’t work together, because gaining an edge becomes more important than solving a problem. .
If you don’t believe me, believe Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s resident political genius. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Rove confirms my point, albeit with a quite a different spin: Republicans are focused on winning the legislatures in this fall’s election in order to control this process. “The political world is fixated on whether this year’s elections will deliver an epic rebuke of President Barack Obama and his party,” he writes. “If that happens, it could end up costing Democrats congressional seats for a decade to come.”
As Rove explains, “control of the state legislature matters whether a state loses or gains seats. Take fast-growing Texas, which is expected to pick up as many as four seats next year. Democrats had a 17-13 edge in the state’s congressional delegation after the 2000 elections. Republicans won control of the Texas House in 2002 and redrew the state’s congressional map. As a result, the GOP now controls 20 congressional seats in Texas while Democrats control 12. Similarly in Georgia, following the 2000 census Democrats redrew district lines to give themselves control of the state’s two new congressional seats. . . .To understand the broader political implications, consider that the GOP gained somewhere between 25 and 30 seats because of the redistricting that followed the 1990 census. Without those seats, Republicans would not have won the House in 1994.”
Rove doesn’t bring it up, but that Texas redistricting was an outrageous bit of gerrymandering engineered by Tom DeLay. And the aftermath of that Republican triumph in 1994, for those who have forgotten, has been an attempt by the GOP to shut down the government, a politically motivated impeachment, and a stymied presidential election that turned into a national embarrassment.
The point is, Rove and his Republican colleagues, along with their Democratic counterparts, are going to invest everything they have into drawing those congressional districts their own advantage. But the answer to Washington’s fundamental problem lies not in having the right band of partisans in control, but in having less partisanship. What we need are fewer political monopolies and more open political markets. What we should be insisting is that the legislatures draw competitive districts. (“The average winner of a competitive House race in 2008 spent $2 million, while a noncompetitive seat can be defended for far less than half that amount, ” writes Rove. “Moving, say, 20 districts from competitive to out-of-reach could save a party $100 million or more over the course of a decade.” Yes! Of course it saves the candidates and the parties money! They don’t have to campaign to win!)
Is nonpartisan redistricting a pipe dream? Not according to the people of Iowa, where a nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau is charged with developing up to three plans that can be accepted or rejected by the legislature. “The plans are criteria-driven, meaning that the bureau draws districts based on clear, measurable criteria,” reports fairvote.org. “The four criteria, in descending order of importance are: 1) population equality; 2) contiguity; 3) unity of counties and cities (maintaining county lines and house districts within senate districts and senate districts within congressional districts); and 4) compactness.” The next time you see your state legislator, demand to know why your state doesn’t deserve a system as fair and as pro-voter as Iowa’s.