T Nation

Why People Don't Vote


When you combine the gerrymandering described in this article with the fact that much lawmaking is done via unelected and politically unaccountable judges and federal agencies, its easy to see why a lot of people think their votes don't matter and simply throw in the towel and stay home on election day.

What do you all think?

House of Unrepresentatives


Something is afoot in the Lone Star state. In May, Texas Democrats fled the state to avoid giving Republicans the quorum they need to gerrymander district lines. Now their battling it out in a special session of the state legislature. But that drama is only the tip of a huge story that goes to the core of our democracy.

A series of bipartisan deals during the reapportionment of Congress following the 2000 census has effectively taken away our ability to elect or to change the House of Representatives. The effect has been to give congressmen of both parties lifetime tenure rivaled only by Supreme Court justices.

Every decade brings a partisan food fight in which the Democrats and Republicans grapple with one another for advantage as they draw new congressional district boundaries. The results usually doom dozens of incumbents to an early demise as they face voters who know them little and like them less. After the 1980 census, 43 incumbents bit the dust. After 1990, 39 lost their seats. But, as a result of the bipartisan deals, only 16 lost in the first election after the 2000 census.

It gets worse. Eight House incumbents lost to other incumbents and four others were defeated in their own party primaries. A grand total of four House members lost their seats to challengers from the other party in the 2002 elections. That's less than 1% of the House. While states are passing term limits, Congress is engineering lifetime tenure.

The gerrymandering of 2002 differs from that in any other year. Normally, the parties go for the jugular, seeking to destroy as many opposition incumbents as possible. This time, the party in power in each state negotiated Democratic voters into Democratic districts and Republicans into GOP areas so as to protect one another's incumbents.

Where Democrats ran the state government, as in California, they sought to protect their incumbents even at the expense of giving up their hopes for a House majority. With 53 congressional seats in the nation's largest state, only one incumbent -- Gary Condit -- had to look for new work after election day.

The Republican legislatures were usually more aggressive, seeking to win marginal seats to prolong their control of the House. But, in the process, they drew the lines of swing districts to keep core Democratic voters outside their boundaries, putting them, instead, into districts already represented by Democrats where they could do no further harm to GOP ambitions.

As a result of these shenanigans, only about 20 of the 435 seats in the Congress are actually in play in a typical election year. Ninety-five percent of the incumbents are safe and, therefore, 95% of the voters are effectively disenfranchised. Meanwhile, the institutional arrogance of these tenured politicians can grow unmolested by the vagaries of electoral fortune.

So, even as the U.S. becomes more evenly divided between the parties than ever before, a seat in the House of Representatives is as secure as any civil-service job. The only reason U.S. Senate seats stayed competitive is that the politicians cannot gerrymander state lines.

For all the attention showered on the influence of money in electoral campaigns, almost nobody has focused on the impact of gerrymandered district lines. Senate and governorship races are fought with bank accounts these days. But House races are fought with maps, computer simulations, and sharp red pencils.

As a result, party bosses can enforce a discipline over their congressional delegations that would have made Boss Tweed smile. Every congressman knows that his fate is tied to how the lines are drawn. Independent congressmen -- Connecticut's Jim Maloney, for example -- find themselves gerrymandered into hopeless races against incumbents of the other party. A member who toes the line and "always voted at his party's call and never thought of thinking for himself at all" (courtesy of Gilbert & Sullivan) gets rewarded with the modern equivalent of the old pocket boroughs of 19th-century Britain.

The solution? Tiny Iowa has passed a law establishing a nonpartisan reapportionment commission and explicitly prohibiting it from taking political factors like incumbency, party or voting habits into account. The result? Four of the 20 competitive seats in the House come from this state with but 1% of the U.S. population.

James Madison said the House should be the body most reflective of popular passions. He never met today's partisan mapmakers.

Mr. Morris, formerly an adviser to President Clinton, is the author of "Off With Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media, and Business" (Regan, 2003).

Updated July 18, 2003


I agree on that "guaranteed survival" tactic. It's used and it's disgusting.

As far as iowa goes, I don't think those seats are truly up for competition. Iowa is a democrat haven for the most part and everyone knows it. So maybe they aren't playing around with boundaries there since there truly is no worry of anything being lost.

They do this also for local state races, and honestly I can say I was happy about the last change. I live in a fast growing suburb with a new shared district to another fast growing one, and for the most part the new growth is conservative. Yet, our previous boundaries for some reason slapped us with a non growth area that was heavily union types who vote based on their boss saying what to pick. Idiots..

Anyway, it sucked since then our reps (both houses) really could care less about what most of us said, they just coddled the union. (reason being is in any large area of regular uninformed joe's, you tend to have a fairly even split of votes, with the typical socio-economic divisions slanting the balance one way or another). So as long as the reps would not really piss off the regular joes while coddling union leaders, they were safe.

Well finally they redrew our area and stuck the new growth's together (since as a whole we have more in common with each other than with the non growth areas). And now the votes go just like you would expect, with one side voting one way and the other voting the other, and reps who actually "represent" their voters a bit more.
Same thing happened in this area with the national reps too. That one truly made me happy since the former rep we had was going further and further to the extreme in his votes but always saying he wasn't. Then when the running season came he stooped too low, he actually had one of his top campaign aids sign up to run as a "no new tax party" (obviously designed to siphon votes from opponent since he was as liberal as it gets). His scam was discovered and plastered on the local news and he got trounced by a ret. colonel who was honest above all else.

Okay back to the issue at hand.

Redistricting can actually be useful, but of course it's always beneficial to the party in control. It's a tough issue to deal with due to population flux. In growing areas you sometimes need it, especially when it comes to state level. And areas that are losing people make a difference also.

Now, for a suggestion. It would be cool if somehow you could have the peeps redistricting based only on population flux. Say you have a bi partisan group that does it, and they aren't given access to the stats and aren't allowed to bring in any info into a room. Then, lock them up in a room with no phones for the weekend, give them population numbers/density, and they can't come out till they are done. Meaning they have no access to voting stats, to poll numbers, or to party affiliations.
Then it would be a contest between who had the best memory of stats and who was strongest willed/could outbid all the peeps in room..lolol