Restoring competition in elections

October 24, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- The Constitution provides life tenure for federal judges, which means they depart only if they die or choose to leave. It does not provide life tenure for members of Congress or state legislators, but politicians have gone a long way toward correcting that oversight.

It's true that these elected officials do have to answer to the voters every so often, but for most, elections are a symbolic ritual that have been drained of all suspense. The re-election rate for members of the House of Representatives typically exceeds 98 percent - which means the average congressman is statistically more likely to marry Angelina Jolie than to be voted out of office.

Most of them could echo the confidence expressed by former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who once said the only way he could lose would be if he were "caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."

But the people of California and Ohio are about to get the chance to regain control of their democracy. On Nov. 8, they will vote on measures that would take reapportionment away from the legislature and turn it over to independent panels, whose members would not have the same incentive to maintain permanent employment for incumbents.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger led the fight to put Proposition 77 on the ballot in California. Democrats accuse him of talking reform only because he hopes it will give his Republican Party an opportunity to take over the legislature. But now he has come out in favor of a similar proposition in Ohio, where it is unpopular among Republican lawmakers who fear they would lose control of the state legislature.

As a sitting governor, Mr. Schwarzenegger may be a member of the true ruling power in this country - which is not the Republican Party or the Democratic Party but the Incumbent Party. Yet he refuses to do its bidding.

He knows one big reason incumbents can sleep so soundly is that their districts are carefully designed to prevent voters from springing unwanted surprises. Legislators draw boundaries to ensure the outcome they want, even if it means creating districts that look like stick figures undergoing torture. One California district contains two large sections connected by only a narrow strip of coastline - prompting one expert to quip that it "is only contiguous at low tide."

Partisan gerrymandering has been around for centuries, but in recent years, thanks to computers, it has been refined to a virtually infallible science. Last year, 402 House incumbents ran for re-election. Only seven lost. In 2002, only four incumbents lost.

Even close races are becoming rare. In 1992, reports a study by the Cato Institute, 65 percent of House members running for re-election won by a landslide, defined as a margin of 20 points or more. By 2002, 80 percent enjoyed blowouts. That year, only 38 races out of 435 were decided by less than 10 percentage points.

California shows how bad things can get. In 2004, 153 legislative and congressional seats were up for election. Not one of them changed party hands.

But California also offers proof that things can be better. In the 1990s, the job of redistricting ended up in the hands of a court-appointed panel, and the results were dramatic. According to Common Cause, the number of competitive races increased by 50 percent. After the 2000 Census, though, the legislature got to redraw the district lines, and the number of competitive elections fell by 55 percent.

Ohioans likewise suffer from election results that are predetermined by the elected. Last year, 16 of the state's 18 seats in the U.S. House were contested, but not a single race was remotely competitive. The closest one was decided by a margin of 18 percentage points. The average margin of victory was 31 points.

The Ohio ballot initiative would turn reapportionment over to an independent commission with a mandate to bring back real elections.

If the measures in Ohio and California pass, future voters may encounter an experience that is increasingly rare: going to the polls without knowing the outcome in advance. That used to be the essence of democracy, and it could be again.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun.

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