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Byrd: Gerrymandered to death

BY MATTHEW BYRD | OCTOBER 03, 2013 5:00 AM

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It’s official — the U.S. government is closed for business. The operations of the government of the most powerful country on the planet was brought to a halt by a radical, ultraconservative, extremist wing of the Republican Party that rejected its own leaders’ attempts at avoiding a government shutdown all over the funding of a law that aims to provide access to basic health care for millions of uninsured Americans.

The worst part of this congressional calamity is that the Republican Party, the majority party in the House of Representatives, is subverting the will of the majority of Americans (who staunchly oppose a government shutdown) not only with their legislative agenda but also by their very position as leaders in the House. As the Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews has pointed out, House Democratic candidates received around 1 million more votes nationwide than Republican candidates in 2012. Yet Republicans maintain a sizable House majority. Why you might ask? The answer is maliciously simple: gerrymandering.

Congressional districts are drawn (in most states) by state legislatures every 10 years after the census is released (a state’s population determines how many representatives it has in Congress). These state legislatures, usually dominated by one party, tend to draw the districts along lines that strengthen their own party’s power in Washington rather than in a way that reflects the demographic realities of the state.

This practice repeated itself after the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans were swept into power in many different states. These Republican legislatures redrew the districts to be much more Republican friendly. Far-right Republicans can safely commit extremely unpopular political acts without fear of any sort of electoral retribution because their districts are so safe for Republicans that the party could run a scarecrow in a suit with an American flag lapel pin and still win in a landslide.

What is the solution to this wholly undemocratic subversion of American democracy? Look no further than Iowa, which shuns gerrymandering in favor of redistricting by a nonpartisan committee.

Every 10 years, the Legislative Service Agency redraws Iowa’s congressional districts, not with partisan and ideological advantage in mind but according to the noble principle of one person, one vote. Members split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, and the committee head must not hold any type of political office or be associated in any way with a particular political party. 

Districts are usually drawn in squares or other hexagonal shapes in order to avoid creating districts carefully (and in some cases creatively) drawn to include areas of mostly homogenous partisan support. The agency also cannot consider factors such as the voter registration records in a particular district or the religious/racial/linguistic/ethnic background of possible districts.

Enacted on a national level, this system would ensure that the popular political desires of a state would be the determinant behind a state’s congressional representation rather than whoever is running the statehouse in a census year.

For far too long, this country has lived with a redistricting system that consistently suppresses the popular will of the American people. We should use the Republican-led government shutdown — a blatant example of the imposition of unpopular and destructive minority rule upon a majority — to abolish one of the main institutions perpetuating its existence.


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