How to Get Real Elections

Published July 8th 2006 in Capital Times
Even before the U.S. Supreme Court gave its seal of approval last week to
disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's hyper-partisan approach
to redistricting a move that gave the go-ahead to politicians to make an
already corrupt process more corrupt, America had seen the death of
political competition in most of the country's 435 House districts.

In Wisconsin, for instance, nearly a decade has passed since an incumbent
representative has been defeated. And none of the state's current House
members is believed to be facing a serious challenge this year.

While it is true that the open 8th District seat in northeast Wisconsin may
see a competitive election, that is largely because Republicans may
nominate outgoing Assembly Speaker John Gard for the seat. Any Republican
other than Gard, who has been tainted by his service in a scandal-plagued
Legislature, would probably have an easy time winning a seat that was drawn
to favor Republicans.

The Wisconsin circumstance is mirrored in states across the country. And
the Supreme Court, with its acceptance of DeLay's warping of the
redistricting process for purely partisan purposes, has told the next
generation of Tom DeLays that they can create even less competitive
districts whenever they want.

What should progressives do about it?

First off, stop looking to the courts for a solution. It's not coming.
Indeed, the Supreme Court's four most conservative justices indicated that
they don't even want to apply Voting Rights Act standards to the
redistricting process.

"If we're really concerned about fair elections, we have to stop counting
on the courts and start looking for political solutions," says Rob Richie,
executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

In the short term, Richie argues, reformers should urge Congress to set
national standards for redistricting. "Congress could establish standards
for transparency sunshine-on-the-process standards that could be defined so
that redistricting can't be done behind closed doors. A second step could
be to set guidelines for when you can and cannot do redistricting. That
would address some of the concerns about the court's ruling."

In the long term, Richie says that reformers should begin pushing for
alternatives to the current system for electing members of Congress
alternatives that will break the grip of the corrupt redistricting

One approach for statewide elections might be a system like the one that
exists in many European countries, in which voters would select a party
slate rather than vote for individual candidates. Under such a system, a
state's delegation would reflect the partisan breakdown in voting. In other
words, if Wisconsin had 10 House districts and 60 percent of the statewide
vote was Democratic, six Democratic representatives would be sent to

That's not the only alternative, or necessarily the best one.

The point is not to settle on one approach now, but rather to recognize
that it may be necessary to explore radical alternatives if we want to
restore competitiveness to congressional elections.

We hope that U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, will embrace the search
for alternatives to the current dysfunctional system.

While reforms at the state level are important and we are especially
supportive of the redistricting reforms proposed by state Rep. Fred
Kessler, D-Milwaukee fundamental changes must first be made at the federal

Baldwin, who has been a pioneer on so many fronts, should take the lead in
proposing and promoting those changes.

Baldwin can start by co-sponsoring the Voter Choice Act, legislation
proposed by Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney that provides that a state may
use a proportional voting system for congressional districts, and that sets
standards for the use of alternative voting systems in elections for
federal posts.