The erosion of democracy

Posted: May 04, 2004 12:00 AM

    In the 19th century, the British parliament system had become so rotten that Dunwich, a former seaport town that had literally sunk under the water, was still represented in parliament. The U.S. Congress doesn't have any Dunwiches, but it is being eaten away by its own form of systemic corruption -- the drawing of congressional districts to hand them irrevocably to one or another of the political parties.
   With the aid of sophisticated computer technology, politicos are able to draw congressional districts so safe that incumbents can hold on to them for a lifetime. In 2002, just four incumbent congressmen who faced non-incumbent challengers lost their re-election bids. Last week the Supreme Court declined to overturn a Pennsylvania congressional redistricting plan in a case highlighting the ongoing scandal of so-called gerrymandering. A hallmark of American democracy, the competitive election, is being wiped out, congressional line by congressional line.

    With the help of district lines sometimes so tortured that they look like works of abstract expressionism, incumbents have increased their re-election rate from 92 percent to 98 percent. That is a marginal-seeming but significant change. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato has a feature on his Web site tracking close congressional races. In 2002, it followed the "Nifty 50," the 50 most competitive races. This year it features the "Dirty 30." "And we had to stretch to get to 30," says Sabato.

    Eighty-one incumbents ran unopposed in 2002, according to the Center for Voting and Democracy. In 350 of the 435 congressional races, the winner won by more than 20 percent. The center projects an even less competitive congressional cycle this year. This means representatives increasingly operate without the factor that tends to force them to be representative -- the fear of defeat.

    On top of the friendly district lines, incumbents have perfected the art of re-election, refining the use of all their natural advantages, from direct mail, to paid staff, to access to the media. More and more, would-be challengers just don't bother. Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey narrowly won a district in Georgia in 2002, but faces no serious challenge this year. Even one-term incumbents in close districts are looking too formidable to challenge.

    The liberal press has only now noticed the problem of gerrymandering, its outrage apparently piqued by the fact that Republicans are now in a position to draw district lines. Governors and state legislatures collaborate in the process of redistricting every 10 years with the new census. In 1990, their position in the states was so weak that Republicans alone could only draw lines for five congressional districts. In the 1980s districts were so heavily gerrymandered by Democrats that Republicans probably needed to win 60 percent of the total congressional vote to have a shot at a majority.

    One of the chief outrages of liberal reformers, Tom DeLay's recent redistricting of Texas, is only an effort to wipe away the effects of such a Democratic gerrymander. The Texas congressional delegation has been marginally Democratic, although the state is as "red" as they come and Republicans hold every statewide elected office. Now the delegation will be more representative.

    But reform that gores both Republicans and Democrats is necessary nationwide. The Supreme Court was right to take a pass in the Pennsylvania case. The court, already notorious for Bush v. Gore, shouldn't get any more involved in partisan politics. It is the public that will have to pressure the political system for change.

    States should adopt objective criteria for the drawing of districts, including contiguity and compactness that will limit somewhat the ability of the parties to play games. Bipartisan commissions should be given a significant role in drawing district lines. In Washington state, such a commission has created generally competitive districts so even a speaker of the House (Tom Foley) has lost a race there in recent memory.

    The goal should be to make it possible for most people to vote in a congressional election that matters. What a concept.