Friday, May 13, 2011

Designing Division

If it looks to you like elected officials can't work across party lines to save their lives – or the country – that's because they aren't working across party lines. By design.

Partisanship is growing more intense and extreme in our government, that's an undeniable fact. The reasons for the increasing polarization of our politics are many and they are complex, but there is one very powerful reason that is usually overlooked. The way legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

Wisconsin is not a Republican red state, or a Democratic blue state. It is purple. Recent statewide elections decided by razor-thin margins show that clearly. Yet most of our congressional districts are either bright red or brilliant blue. They are so tilted in favor of one party or the other that we rarely see competitive elections for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Before the last round of redistricting after the 2000 census, most of the U.S. House districts already were politically lopsided. But when the new boundaries were drawn the powers-that-be took good care of the incumbent office holders, making two districts even safer for them than they were before. The 1st and 2nd congressional districts were manipulated to give both Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin and Republican congressman Paul Ryan an even easier path to reelection and and even tighter grip on power.

Baldwin’s district was made more urban, taking from Ryan's the Democratic stronghold of Beloit and shedding rural, Republican-leaning counties. Ryan got rid of the part of Rock County containing Beloit but kept his hometown of Janesville while his district expanded into Waukesha County, one of the most Republican parts of the state.

At the state legislative level, the lack of competitive districts is equally conspicuous. Of the 132 legislative districts, no more than about two dozen can regularly be expected to produce elections that are remotely close. This in a state that is as purple as any in the country, where the electorate is as evenly divided as they come.

The result is that those who are elected to represent bright red Republican districts only have to be good at preaching the GOP gospel. And those chosen in vivid blue Democratic districts only have to be skilled at spewing liberal dogma. We get exactly what Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel documented. More extreme partisanship. Lots of hot air . . . ideologically pure hot air. Lockstep, party-line voting. Political paralysis. Huge problems left unsolved. A nation spinning its wheels when there is no time to waste.

One step Wisconsin and all of America need to take is removing politics from redistricting. With politicians in charge of designing their own districts, we have the foxes guarding the chicken coop, the inmates in charge of the asylum, pick your metaphor. We need to take this task out of the hands of the politicians and give it to a nonpartisan agency or commission. Then we'll get more districts that aren't so red or blue. And we'll get more elected representatives who can work across party lines.

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