By Daniel Gaynor, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Daniel Gaynor is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and a partner at Sweat to Solutions, a non-profit consultancy. The views expressed are his own.
As the government shutdown has entered its second week, there are few signs that the gridlock will be resolved anytime soon. But while finger pointing continues and federal employees stay furloughed, the larger crisis remains unresolved: gerrymandering.
However you vote on election day, you would probably like to know that your vote at least counts. But for more Americans than ever, that’s less and less likely to be the case. Since the last shutdown, in 1995, states from North Carolina to Arizona have been carved up into biased voting districts, in a process called “gerrymandering.”
So what is it? Let’s jump back to 1812. The governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, signed into law a “redistricting” plan, one that carved his political opponents into voting districts where they would have less ability to win. And on a map, the new districts looked like a salamander. A local newspaper combined the words Gerry and salamander, and today we have “gerrymander.”
Governor Gerry successfully confined his opposition’s supporters into districts where they were either in the stark minority (diffusing their influence) – or where they were the overwhelming majority (consolidating their influence). Either way, it meant Gerry’s opponents had less sway over the election.
The problem is that states still follow Gerry’s playbook today. Look at Texas, where a Republican-led majority redistricted in 2003, putting 10 Democratic Congressman in significantly more conservative districts. Five of them were voted out in the next election.
As a political strategy, it’s a smart move. But done on a national scale, gerrymandering has major ramifications for America. It leads to partisan, recalcitrant, and often more extreme voting blocs. And it’s why we have a government shutdown today. Here in Washington, a Tea Party faction of the Republicans – and to be clear, certainly not all Republicans – are so adamant about defunding a law (The Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare”) that they have stopped the government from approving spending.
Some contend that, once voters see all the negative results of a shutdown (like, no more “Panda Cam” at the National Zoo) they’ll vote out the representatives behind the shutdown in the next election. Yet Americans should have little reason to believe that. The Tea Partiers mostly come from heavily conservative districts, meaning they will have constant support at the polls. These districts, more often than not, come as a result of gerrymandering.
Most gerrymandered Tea Party districts will continue to support their incumbent representatives, even if they are the driving force behind the shutdown. As Politico reported this week: “79 of the 236 House Republicans serving during the last shutdown resided in districts that Clinton won in 1992. Today, just 17 of the 232 House Republicans are in districts that Obama won in 2012.” In non-political speak: the voters are going to keep these guys around. (To be fair, many Democrats have super-safe districts. But the Democrats do not have a wing of their caucus willing to shut down the government over a law passed more than three years ago.)
What’s more, the shutdown is leading to dangerous results. For instance: The Air National Guard, who are responsible for air defense and firefighting missions, are not doing their scheduled training because of the shutdown. Do we really need to be risking the readiness of the people who are on the frontlines of saving people from deadly wildfires?
And let’s hope a major disease breakout doesn’t hit your town next week. After all, flu season is around the corner and school is back in session. But because of the shutdown, about 70 percent of the Center for Disease Control’s staff is locked out of the office, which hurts their ability to response to outbreaks of dangerous diseases.
It begs the question: how can we fix this mess? With Congress’ public approval rating hovering at just 10 percent, more pressure from citizens on the national level will not turn the Hill around. Rather, change needs to be made on the state and local level.
First, citizens should express serious concern to their local representatives over gerrymandering. The political ambitions of single elected officials are leading to districts that, over the long run, only increase partisanship. Take a look at some of the ugliest – including one called the “Hanging Claw” – here.
Second, states should allow independent, non-partisan commissions to draw data-driven, not party-oriented, voting districts that are representative of the state’s population. Iowa is the example to follow. It taps a non-partisan team to draw district maps for the Iowa state House and Senate, plus U.S. House districts, “without any political or election data, including the addresses of incumbents”. Using just population as its metric, it ensures that every district is as fair as possible.
And third, citizens should push for statewide constitutional changes that ban gerrymandering practices and loopholes. As one person told me this week, “The question on the Hill is: is this more of a two-year problem?” – meaning voters are blindly voting for incumbents every election cycle – “Or a ten-year problem?” that means the districts, which get realigned after every U.S. Census, are at fault.
“It’s likely the districts,” was the conclusion.
Back in elementary school, we learn that U.S. government is a system of checks and balances. The “check” on Congress is that voters can simply kick them out of office. But when districts turn voters into yes-men, a new mechanism for fairness needs to be created. In order to restart the government and kick-start Congress, stopping gerrymandering is undoubtedly the key first step we need to take.