The Congressional process is broken: We can fix it

The Cook Report deemed that 83 percent of the Congressional seats in the House are now non-competitive, a result of political gerrymandering’s distortion of the popular vote. The incongruity between popular will as expressed by aggregate state votes for Congress and actual congressional representation is striking.  The worst-case states are affronts to any sense of equity or fairness, desecrating the concept of “one man one vote.”

In Pennsylvania in 2012 Republicans controlled 72 percent of the seats despite having received only 49 percent of the popular vote.  In Michigan, 46 percent of the voters elected a delegation that was 66 percent Republican. In Ohio, 75 percent of the House seats are Republican although only 47 percent of Ohioans voted that way.  As an architect of the 2002 redistricting that turned two previously competitive New York congressional districts (NY2 and NY3) into “safe” seats, I know how it’s done.  But as I reflect on the national effects of the practice I now propose a method to undo it.

Democratic governance requires institutions and processes that promote political and social consensus.  The polarization, ideological skewing and resulting dysfunction of the U.S. Congress pulls us in the opposite direction. There is a reason that the latest NBC national poll rates public approval of Congress at its lowest point in recorded history, with only 12 percent favorability.  This national attitude threatens the very legitimacy of government.

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The answer involves limiting the role of partisans whose principal goal in the redistricting process is to maximize the power of their generally extreme ideological niche. In 34 states, Congressional district boundaries are crafted through a highly politicized, blatantly partisan process under the control of state legislatures and governors. Yet in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey and Washington the redistricting process has been depoliticized by taking decision making out of the hands of state legislatures and governors and placing it under the authority of non-partisan commissions mandated by law to draw districts free from partisan manipulation.

Empowered through state constitutional amendments, these commissions comprise five to fourteen members transparently selected and mandated by law to be apolitical.  Membership is limited to individuals who have not held and do not intend to hold political positions.  The Hawaiian Constitution specifically requires that districts are “not drawn to unduly favor a person or political faction.” Iowa has a non-partisan Legislative Services Agency drafting redistricting plans based on population equity, continuity, compactness and respect for county and city lines.

Obviously, most state legislatures, content with preserving the status quo, will not unilaterally give up the power to redistrict.  They must be bypassed through end-runs that limit their role in the process.  In most  states there already exists a mechanism to do just that.  Twenty nine states have provisions for ballot initiatives and plebiscites that can depoliticize redistricting.   These include the states with the most egregious and distorted congressional district apportionment in the nation.  Given the chance, voters generally do not turn down ballot initiatives that simply require equity, transparency and fairness, devoid of political manipulation.  If these initiatives get on the ballot they invariably pass by large margins.

It will take political will. It will take action.  It will take funding.  But it can be done.

It is time for a consortium of national political leaders and non-partisan/bipartisan and extra-partisan good government organizations to coalesce and act.  Organizations like “No Labels” and the League of Women Voters, working with respected national leaders like Michael Bloomberg, Jon Huntsman, Olympia Snowe,  Leon Panetta, Tom Davis and former National Committee Chairmen Bob Dole and Bob Strauss can craft a national campaign to get these initiatives on state ballots before the 2020 census.  This could ensure  that the next generation of the U.S. Congress is composed of districts that are broadly competitive and members who balance the spectrum of views within our country. We can do more than whine about a broken system. We can fix it.

Siegel is a partner at Locke Lord Strategies and a former executive director of the Democratic National Committee.