Opinion Editorial

By Dennis Polhill, David Ottke

Subverting the will of the people by fixing elections strikes at the heart of the democratic process.

Shortly after the 2000 census is finished, powerful politicians will meet in virtual secrecy to decide who will be in power for the next decade.

It is a flaw of the winner-take-all two party system.  Gerrymandering is the process of redrawing election district boundaries to throw as many of the opposing party’s votes into as few districts as possible.  Thus, by conceding a few districts, the majority party enhances its margins in the legislative body and insures its control until the next census.  The natural consequence is that majority party voters living in minority party dominated districts lack both representation and an opportunity to achieve representation through the election process.  Minority parties never have a chance to become the majority. The threats of having third party views heard are suppressed even more than they are naturally.

In the November 1998 election, 79 of Colorado’s 100 General Assembly seats were filled.  Sixty-five House members and 14 Senators were elected.  One of the two major parties did not bother to field a candidate in 19 races. The number of uncontested races was an improvement over the 1996 high of 25.  Similar numbers were posted throughout the decade.  Is it that too few people care or are more sinister forces at play?

Candidates consider victories of over 55% as landslides.  By that standard 63 landslides occurred in the 79 General Assembly races in the 1998 election.  Otherwise stated fewer than 20 percent of the races had better than the faintest hope of a real election contest. But arguably 1998 may have been the most competitive General Assembly election of modern time due to term limits prohibiting 27 veteran legislators from running again.  Eighty per cent and 83% of Colorado House members were elected by landslides in 1996 and 1994 respectively.  If 80% of election results are predetermined, then the votes of 80% of voters do not matter.

The numbers at the federal level are worse.  Since World War II, Congressional re-election rates have ranged between 98% and 99%.  When turnover shot up to 7% in 1994, it was termed a “Revolution.”

If there is no election contest, “Is there an election?”  Americans ridicule the Communist system for providing only one candidate. Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, once said, “give me the right to nominate and you can vote for whomever you please.”  With superficial concern for declining voter turnout, election observers fail to comprehend the deeper message sent by voters as they increasingly exercise their right to abstain from voting.

Founding Father Elbridge Gerry, for whom gerrymandering is named, demonstrated how quickly commitment to democratic principles mutates into self interest.  As Governor of Massachusetts in 1812, he oversaw the drawing of election district boundaries to insurer the political result that he desired. Despite its profoundly undemocratic nature gerrymandering spread quickly. Early state constitutions always gave power to draw districts to the state legislature, usually with veto power given to the Governor.  This practice continues today in 32 states, including Colorado. More widespread than the well-known racial abuses, gerrymandering has become a tool for protecting incumbents from serious election challenges.

Recognition of the need for reform is not new.  At least four bills were considered by the Colorado General Assembly in 1981.  Two failed in the legislature and two were vetoed.  All four dealt with Congressional districting only and were seen by the Democratic Governor as maneuvering by the Republican Legislature to capture more Congressional seats. In 1990 State Senator Terry Considine introduced his Election Reform Amendment.  It was designed to restore competition to the election process.  In addition to term limits and campaign finance disclosure, ERA put redistricting in the hands of an independent commission and required that the number of party registered voters be balanced in each district. Lacking interest in such changes the General Assembly quickly disposed of the ERA.

The conflict of interest of having legislative bodies draw election districts is obvious.  Redistricting must be entrusted to a body of independent citizens more interested in increasing election competition than lightening the re-election load.  In addition to the current criteria of equal population and contiguousness, a compactness criteria must be enforced. The goal is to minimize the ratio of perimeter to surface area, making appendages to capture desired population clusters more difficult.

Elections are an integral part of both the democratic process and the American culture.  The notion of an increasingly constrained election process has no future.  Lacking the necessary changes, more extreme reforms such as abandonment of geographic representation altogether, may be on the horizon.

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Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, http://i2i.org.

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