Cleveland Plain Dealer
Our unduly selected representatives
By Tom Brazaitis
At the risk of destroying yet another cherished
illusion from your high school civics class, I regretfully inform
you that, contrary to what you have been told, you do not elect your
member of Congress.
Oh, sure, if you are a conscientious citizen, you
dutifully go the polls every two years and cast a ballot for or
against the incumbent representative in your district. But, with few
exceptions, the outcome in each of the country's 435 congressional
districts is preordained.
As we embark on another congressional election year,
experts are predicting that, at most, 25 to 30 districts in the
country will be competitive. The outcome in the other 405 or 410
districts is a foregone conclusion.
The reason for this is that members of Congress are,
in fact, selected, not elected, by a process called redistricting
that takes place every 10 years following the national census.
Voters have no say in redistricting. The lines for congressional
districts are drawn in almost all states by governors and state
legislators, who have two main concerns: 1) ensuring that their
party, Republican or Democratic, depending on who's in charge,
controls as many districts as possible, and 2) carving out districts
that they themselves might be able to run in to move up the
political ladder to federal office.
By creating districts heavily weighted toward one
party or the other, the state politicians who draw the lines
determine the outcome of all but a small percentage of congressional
races for the next 10 years, until it's time to redraw the lines
Occasionally, an unexpected result occurs, such as the
brief period when a Republican represented the heavily Democratic
district of Youngstown and its environs, but it is these exceptions
that prove the rule. In the case cited, voters chose Republican Lyle
Williams rather than continue the reign of scandal-prone Democrat
Charles Carney. The district later was returned to Democratic hands,
if only nominally, by Rep. James Traficant.
Designating territory that is safe for one party or
the other sometimes results in contorted districts spanning several
counties with dissimilar legislative interests. But such disservice
to the people living in those districts doesn't matter to the
politicians who draw the lines, just as long as their selfish goals
Usually, this gerrymandering, as it is called, takes
place unobtrusively. Some voters don't realize what's been done
until they show up at the polls.
Much to the chagrin of the political mucky-mucks in
Ohio, the redistricting process has become very public, through no
one's fault but their own. Although census data have been available
for months, the Republican office-holders who have sole control of
redistricting in the state dilly-dallied so long that it is now too
late to redraw the lines in time for the state's May 7 primary
without the consent of the Democratic minority.
Population shifts to the south and west will cost Ohio
one of its 19 congressional seats. With control fully in their
hands, Republican gerrymanderers want to make sure the seat that is
lost is a Democratic seat and would like to weaken other Democratic
districts as well. Because of term limits on state offices, some
legislators want districts redrawn to suit their future ambitions.
Notice how the decision-making has nothing to do with
the voters' best interests.
The Republicans, in their own best interests, have
abandoned their proposal for a separate congressional primary in
August, which would have cost taxpayers at least $6 million.
In the meantime, they had to endure Democrats'
accusations that they wanted to push back the filing deadline to
prevent Democratic congressmen who are redistricted from filing for
state offices in the May primary.
Ironically, the Republicans' excuse for delaying the
redistricting bill was that their first priority was dealing with a
projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall. So, their solution is to
add to the deficit in order to balance the budget.
Regular readers of this column know that my solution
for this highly partisan exercise is to take redistricting out of
the hands of elected officials by appointing a bipartisan commission
to redraw the lines every 10 years. Better yet, do away with the
current system of single-member congressional districts and replace
it with multimember districts, say, two five-member districts and
two four-member districts.
Ohio once was a national leader in proportional
representation, which allowed voters to cast ballots that really
mattered and produced more broadly representative legislative
The politicians seized back control of the process and
re-established a system they could manipulate for partisan
Ohio's Republican leaders were shamed out of their
petty plan to push back the congressional primaries, but voters need
not forgive them for what they wanted to do, nor forget it next
Brazaitis is a senior editor in The Plain Dealer's