Now that the shutdown appears to be coming to an end (at least for 90 days), we have to wonder how we got this series of legislative stalemates. Turns out, according to an NBC News story, we can thank Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry who, in 1812 drew a congressional district to secure his party’s election that looked like a salamander–hence gerrymandering.
This is the practice that both parties have used to their advantage, and particularly House Republicans. In 1995, 79 Republicans represented districts won by President Clinton. Today, only 17 districts that supported President Obama in the last election are represented by Republicans. Districts are drawn in all sorts of bizarre shapes that in no way reflect the settlement patterns of our country–only voting patterns by party. This allows for those in the political extremes, right and left, to dominate because they have a more or less assured base.
Local officials have to serve diverse populations of citizens in their municipalities. In fact, in our city, the city council members are all “at large” which means all of them have to consider the interests of the whole city of Columbus, about as diverse politically as the state of Ohio. Columbus city government works about as well as any government I have seen–not perfect but problems get tackled, agreements are struck, and the city, which is financially in good shape, moves forward. City leaders have to be elected by broader constituencies and so one never seems the appeals to political bases that you see in federal politics.
It could be different. Districts could be drawn to reflect the geography and settlement patterns of states and in ways where diverse classes and economic interests are represented in the same district rather than pitted against each other. I am in the 12th congressional district of Ohio represented by a Republican, Pat Tiberi. The district consists of suburban Columbus, suburbs around Columbus and rural, basically Republican strongholds, including Delaware, Ohio, which many think elected George Bush in 2004. People living within 2 miles of us in the city of Columbus are in a different district while residents of Zanesville, 40 plus miles away, and Mansfield, over 50 miles away are part of our district. Does this make any sense?
Ohio attempted to pass a redistricting reform ballot initiative in 2012. It was defeated, and a lot of money was spent by the anti-redistricting interests in the process. Now it seems the only talk about reform is for stricter, anti-fraud measures which many suggest hit urban minority voters heaviest. Sadly, it appears to me that Ohio’s contribution to our political morass is simply “more of the same.” Even if we “vote the bums out”, without redistricting reform, I think we will just get more of the same. Thank you, Elbridge Gerry!