The principle of government in a republic is that the voters choose their legislators. In most of modern America, however, we are faced with the absurd reality that legislators choose their voters.
This is due to the process of partisan redistricting, also known as gerrymandering. Essentially, it involves the majority party in a state legislature deliberately drawing the lines of congressional districts in such a way as to pack as many voters who support the opposition party into as few districts as possible, thereby maximizing the number of districts their party will win and minimizing the numbers of districts the opposition will win. In pursuit of partisan advantage, absurd district shapes are created, usually taking no account of such things as natural borders or keeping communities such as towns or cities within the same legislative district.
This is nothing new. During elections for the very first Congress in 1788, Patrick Henry tried to gerrymander James Madison out of a congressional seat in Virginia (thankfully, Henry was unsuccessful). Indeed, the very term "gerrymander" comes from Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts in the early 19th Century who used the gerrymandering of his political enemies as a standard tactic. But the fact that it has been done for a long time is no justification for its continuation, for partisan redistricting is blatantly undemocratic and should be abolished as soon as possible.
Because of gerrymandering, the vast majority of congressional districts in America have become extremely skewed towards one of the two major political parties, usually by a ratio of around 70% to 30%. This means that if a person is unfortunate enough to be a Republican in a Democratic district or a Democrat in a Republican district, he or she has no real representation. A member of Congress who represents such a district can safely ignore the concerns of a constituent who supports the opposition party and suffer no electoral punishment for doing so. A reasonable case can be made for the idea that most Americans are not truly represented in Congress at all.
Another negative consequence of partisan redistricting is that a shockingly large number of representatives face no competition on election day. Since the minority party in a gerrymandered district sees little chance of victory, they often decide it is not worth the effort and resources to contest the election and simply don't run a candidate at all. This means that the incumbent need not fear the judgment of the people, and can act in ways that would otherwise get him thrown out of office by his constituents. The easier it is for an incumbent to remain in office, the less attention he needs to pay to the wishes of his constituents, thus degrading the very principles of representative democracy.
Gerrymandering also contributes to voter apathy. Seeing the incumbent win reelection over and over again, citizens often see little or no value in casting their vote on election day. Why bother, when the outcome has already been settled ahead of time by the gerrymandering process?
It is a common practice for a member of a state legislature who is planning on running for Congress to use his influence to create a congressional district for himself, including the areas where his support is already the strongest. Thus he not only gains an unfair advantage over any candidate from the other party, but against any potential opposing candidate from his own party. Incumbent members of Congress routinely use their influence with members of their state legislatures to ensure legislative district maps that protect them from competition, even working with members of the other party to do so (as the entire Virginia congressional delegation recently did). While legal, it is still immoral and corrupt.
The essence of any democracy is that the wishes of the people form the basis for the actions of the government. Through gerrymandering, however, partisan factions can achieve decisive political power even if the majority of the people do not want them to have it. Gerrymandering stifles political debate and allows incumbents to be free from the threat of defeat by their constituents. In most years, well over 90% of incumbent members of Congress win reelection. Even in last year’s midterms, which saw candidates backed by Tea Party groups defeat many incumbents, the incumbency reelection rate was still 87%. For a country that is supposed to be a vibrant democracy, this is ridiculous.
Rather than allowing state legislatures to keep the power to draw congressional and state legislative districts, which will inevitably result in the continuation of the practice of gerrymandering, each state should have a nonpartisan committee of citizens to undertake the redrawing of district maps after each census. Legislation creating such commissions must include language to ensure that these commissions should be made up of citizens who are not elected officials, active supporters of elected officials, officials of any political party, or who otherwise have some personal advantage to gain by gerrymandering.
Twelve states, including Iowa, Arizona, and Washington, currently have such commissions functioning. It's no coincidence that congressional elections in those states have become more competitive, resulting in greater attention paid by incumbents to the wishes of their constituents and more fruitful debate and discourse in their political campaigns.
Under the Constitution, Congress has the authority to require the states to create independent redistricting commissions. Indeed, during the last few sessions of Congress, well-intentioned congressmen have proposed legislation which would do exactly that. However, it should come as no surprise that the bills went nowhere in Congress. After all, because the members of Congress are the ones who benefit from gerrymandering, why should we expect them to vote against their own individual self-interest?
It seems clear that, if any successful action is to be on the issue of gerrymandering, it must be done by the individual states. This presents obvious problem, due to the partisan divide currently splitting America. Consider the four largest states: California, Texas, New York, and Florida. If California and New York, which are dominated by Democrats, were to implement redistricting reform, it would be to the advantage of Republicans, whereas if Texas and Florida were to do so, it would be to the advantage of Democrats. Unless it was done everywhere at the same time, which seems extremely unlikely, one party or the other would gain an advantage, and this prospect would likely derail the entire process.
What must happen is a comprehensive grassroots effort by American citizens to put enough pressure on their own state legislators to get them to get these bills passed. Twelve states have already done so, and as more follow suit momentum will be built to the point where it will be like a snowball rolling down a hill. If enough momentum is built, it can overcome the political inertia that holds the process back.
Because the annual census was taken last year, state legislatures all over the country are currently busy drawing up their congressional districts for the next decade. The time to act is now. We, as citizens, must make redistricting reform a priority, because until we do, the idea of a true representative democracy will remain a mere dream. More to the point, until the power of the ruling political elite is broken, the country's most pressing problems will remain unaddressed.