Reformers On The Rise
Published: November 13th, 2015
By: Steven and Cokie Roberts

For all the toxic partisan smog now polluting Washington, there is one thing both sides can agree on: The way Congressional districts are drawn makes the problem worse. Much worse.

When it comes to the House of Representatives, democracy is a joke. The authoritative Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report says that in next year's elections, only 12 districts out of the 435 in the entire country rate as "toss-ups," and only 31 are "in play."

Last year, the independent website Ballotpedia listed only 26 "battleground" districts, and only eight of them changed party hands. In all, 416 districts stayed with the same party, or about 96 percent.

The result is catastrophic. Almost every member of Congress is totally protected from political accountability. They don't have to pay any attention to questions or criticism from their rivals. If they have any fear at all, it's being challenged in a primary by a more hardline opponent.

"The polarization and deadlock in the U.S. Congress is partly a product of the safe districts that gerrymandering has created in many states," writes Richard Gunther, a political scientist at Ohio State. "Evidence of the damage that this is inflicting on American democracy is so clear that inaction is no longer acceptable."

Fortunately, in a growing number of states, reformers are working to reverse the damage Gunther describes. Some are actually succeeding.

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One favorite option: Take the redistricting power away from self-interested politicians and turn it over to an independent commission. About a dozen states have some form of non-partisan panel, including Arizona, which established its version through a voter referendum in 2000.

Aggrieved lawmakers have been trying to kill the commission ever since, saying that under the Constitution, only elected legislators can draw districts. But in June, the Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to reject that argument.

"The animating principle of our Constitution," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "is that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government."

The court's decision has galvanized reform efforts across the country. "A lot of states ... probably would have scaled back their efforts if the decision had gone the other way," Kathay Feng of the public interest lobby Common Cause told Politico. "Now, they are super-charged to move forward."

Then, earlier this month, Ohio voted 71 percent to 29 percent to amend the state constitution and create a commission to redraw state legislative lines. Carrie Davis of the League of Women Voters called the victory a "first step," and vowed to extend the new process "to congressional districts, which are even more gerrymandered."

Gerrymandering is as old as the Republic, and in a democracy, elections have consequences. Winners have the right to exercise power. But that power is not unlimited.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy put it in a concurring opinion in Vieth v. Jubelirer -- a 2004 gerrymandering case -- the majority cannot use its position in an "invidious manner," to undermine the fairness of the democratic process.

Two recent trends have aggravated the problem, and one is computers. As Gunther notes, "With the development of sophisticated computer programs, the distorting political effects of gerrymandering have been magnified enormously."

The other trend is polarization itself. As partisan divisions and animosities grow, so does the determination to suppress and subjugate one's rivals. And both parties are guilty of that impulse.

In Ohio, for example, Republicans won 57 percent of the vote in Congressional elections last year, yet captured 75 percent of the seats. In Maryland, 1 in 4 voters is a Republican, but the GOP holds only 1 of 8 House seats.

The battle against "invidious" gerrymandering is worth fighting on several fronts. The Supreme Court has never defined the limits of political power, and as Justice Kennedy put it, "No substantive definition of fairness in districting seems to command general assent."

But there's a line out there somewhere, and reformers should keep bringing cases that force judges to grapple with the problem of reaching that "substantive definition of fairness."

More promising is the model advanced by citizen activists in states like Arizona and Ohio. Curbing the power of elected officials to insulate themselves from political accountability won't solve every problem that's paralyzing legislatures in Washington and elsewhere. But it will help.

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As Matt Huffman, a Republican politician in Ohio, told the Columbus Dispatch, the strong vote for reform in that state "shows that even complicated, partisan issues are solvable if you get the right people in the room and people work in good faith."

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at