PITTSFIELD >> "If we want a better politics, it's not enough just to change a a congressman or change a senator or even change a president. We have to change the system I think we've got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so the politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around."
For me this was one of the most important and politically insightful points made by President Obama in his state of the union speech. And the president appropriately chose gerrymandering as one of the fundamental problem with our system of government that needs to be fixed.
Elbridge Gerry, was ridiculed in 1810 as the Massachusetts governor for the redistricting of voters that then took place in the state to help elect him and members of his political party to other elective offices. His critics coined the phrase gerrymander because one of these districts was shaped like a salamander.
It is both ironic and instructive that the use of Gerry's name in that term has become part of the political lexicon. As one of the state's delegates to Constitutional Convention, he voted against the document.
In a letter to the Massachusetts legislature he ironically stated that his reason for doing so was that the document created a "system" of national government that among other things made no adequate provision for representation of the people, nor did it secure the right of elections. But then as a politician running for governor, he used this system to shape voting districts in a manner advantageous to him and his party's candidates in running for office. In other words voters supporting his political party were packed into districts to ensure the election of his party's candidates disregarding the election of office holders who would truly be representative of the voters in the area.
Gerrymandering is now the basic reason for the lawmaking dysfunction in the House of Representatives. State legislatures, increasingly governed by Republican majorities, have created state voting districts, no matter their shape or whether they are representative of the voters in the immediate geographic area, packed with their party members including large numbers of the party's right wing base.
Many of these voters are neither interested in their representatives voting for any legislation supported by President Obama, nor their Democratic House members. Representatives in these safe voting districts can simply continue to do no more than take their so far futile votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, end same sex marriage, put the financial credibility of the nation in jeopardy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and the like.
Take back government
The part of the Constitution that Gerry complained about as not guaranteeing a right to an election or representative government was the document's delegation of elections to state legislatures to set the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives. This enables state lawmakers to engage in gerrymandering. Republicans have made it one of their major election priorities. The resulting, skewered consequence is the election of more Republican than Democratic representatives in states where more Democratic votes were cast for representatives than Republican.
This is certainly not representative government. One of the obvious fixes for the problem of gerrymandering is to change the current majorities in state legislatures. Today, the Republican majorities in state legislatures are responsible for causing the congressional dysfunction. In this instance the political call to "take back our government" makes sense.
Under this part of the election system the House of Representatives is a misnomer, It is not representative of the voters. If voters want representative government they have to take the state legislatures back from Republican majorities to elect Democrats to recreate congressional districts for a truly representative and functional Congress. But this is a long-term, and difficult process.
The Supreme Court in a 2015 decision came up with a way to shorten this process to some extent by forcing legislatures to act in states that allow voters to use an initiative procedure to force votes on state laws. Voters in Arizona used this procedure to pass a law creating an independent commission to do the redistricting in that state. Arizona's GOP-led Legislature opposed this law.
The Court in a 5-4 decision — the four liberal justices and Justice Kennedy voting for the majority — upheld the law. About half the states have such an initiative procedure which allows voters to force the legislature to pass a measure and failing that to have the measure voted on a statewide election by the voters.
Hopefully the voters, and especially those in the states with the initiative procedure, got the president's message to fix the problem of gerrymandering and will indeed move to take back the government to make the House of Representative truly representative.