Published November 1st 2006 in Dallas-Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The Nov. 7 midterm elections are providing America with a development that is unusual in 21st-century politics: uncertainty about which party will control Congress come January.
Political prognosticators have bounced around more than chocolate-eating 2-year-olds: Democrats will gain control of Congress; Republicans will retain the majority; Democrats will gain seats but not enough to control; Republicans will lose seats but not enough to lose the majority.
That's the way elections should be: competitive. When outcomes aren't obvious weeks in advance of Election Day, voters have a reason to head to the polls.
Even with the excitement of this year's overall picture, the number of U.S. House seats up for grabs is still small. With congressional districts being drawn as incumbent protection plans, the majority of races are foregone conclusions.
That landscape won't change until states adopt nonpartisan methods for conducting redistricting.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan open-government advocacy group, points out that in the 2004 U.S. House races, more than 85 percent of incumbents won by majorities of more than 60 percent. And only seven incumbents of the 399 running lost their seats -- a 98.2 percent re-election rate. Four of those losing incumbents were in Texas and were specifically targeted in the mid-decade redistricting.
That stunning re-election rate didn't happen because voters were universally satisfied with their representation. It happened because of the way the boundary lines are drawn. To quote FairVote.org, "legislators and their political cronies" use the redistricting process "to choose their voters, before voters have had the opportunity to choose them."
In a "safe" district, the competitive race happens in the primary. If voters are given a choice -- many incumbents don't draw primary opposition -- they are presented with their party's most partisan loyalists. Party centrists who might be interested in running find something else to do with their time and treasure.
The primaries become wrestling matches of who can "out-conservative" or "out-liberal" the other candidate. Elections can turn on a single issue that the candidates trumpet to energize the party's hard-core base -- abortion or same-sex marriage or stem cell research or public school vouchers or gun control.
The result? Increasingly ultraconservative and ultraliberal politicians are being sent to Captiol Hill. And they know that fraternization with the "enemy" could cost them votes -- and maybe their jobs -- in the next election.
It's not exactly a system that lends itself to voter choice, diversity in government, statesmanship, compromise or civility.
A number of states are reviewing redistricting reforms that will remove the partisanship from the process.
Yet even "nonpartisan" redistricting commissions can become partisan tools, depending on how commission members are selected. Some states are looking at panels composed of retired state or federal judges who have never held a partisan public office. That system obviously wouldn't work in Texas, where judges are elected in partisan races.
Texas, the poster child for redistricting gone amok after the 2003 fiasco, will face the process once again in 2011 or 2012, when legislative district lines will have to be adjusted in response to information provided in the 2010 U.S. Census.
That leaves very little time for lawmakers to tackle redistricting reform, and they won't touch it unless voters pressure them to find a less divisive, damaging process.
A representative government is about legislative diversity and voter options. Texas voters must reclaim their role in the political process by demanding a new system.
IN THE KNOW
Sixteen states are considering redistricting reform proposals. To read proposals from California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Virginia, go to Fair Vote's Voting and Democracy Research Center at www.fairvote.org/?page=1428.