The public policy challenges posed by an economy in the midst of a structural evolution are numerous. Addressing them requires elected leaders that effectively represent the interests of their constituents. Though choosing elected officials is ultimately the responsibility of the voting public, the practice of politicians choosing their constituents through redistricting often has undue influence in the process and leaves us with a political dialogue ill-suited to addressing the big issues.
Connecticut’s recently concluded redistricting process, which redrew General Assembly and U.S. House districts, started with the great hope of overhauling the state’s obviously gerrymandered Congressional districts. Republicans on the bipartisan Redistricting Commission proposed big changes to the current map, moving Bridgeport into the Third District, expanding the Second District closer to New Haven, and realigning greater Hartford suburbs into more sensible districts.
Democrats, however, are content to hold all five Congressional Districts exactly as they are – with five Democratic members of Congress. They made very minor changes to the status quo in order to balance the district populations. When the state Supreme Court instructed Special Master Nathan Persily to confine his changes to only those absolutely necessary, they effectively chose the Democratic map. Future attempts to undo gerrymandered maps will be hampered by the poor precedent set in this case.
Though ten years will now pass before the issue is re-opened, the redistricting process should be evaluated during this time and reforms should be adopted to reduce the impact of gerrymandering and increase the competitiveness of legislative elections in Connecticut. One proposal for closer examination should be the “Rethinking Redistricting” plan proposed by former Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita in September 2010.
The plan was based on five principles: keeping communities of interest together, creating more compact and geographically uniform districts, reduce voters’ confusion about who represents them by following existing political boundaries, not use political data, including incumbent addresses, for partisan reasons, and “nesting” house districts into senate districts.
In sum, the concepts represent an entirely practical approach to the redistricting process. Rather than protecting incumbents or catering to other narrow political interests, like candidates for higher office sitting on the commission that redraws the districts, this approach would depoliticize the process and make it much more accessible for citizens.
One particularly intriguing principle is the concept of nesting, in which State House Districts would be drawn as subsections of a State Senate district, and if one were so inclined, State Senate districts would be drawn as subsections of Congressional districts.Twelve other states require nesting in some form and Connecticut should carefully consider whether it would produce more sensible maps in our state as well.
If there is a peril in modern politics, it is that some issues seem to exist in a vacuum, an impression particularly vivid in the context of redistricting. What does it matter, most members of the public likely wonder as they read about the political catfights surrounding redistricting. But meeting the challenges of an evolving economy requires a robust politics that gives voice to all views and then synthesizes them into effective public policy decisions. Protecting incumbents and gerrymandered maps inhibit this process and make it harder for us as a society to accomplish our collective goals.
Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com