SHENOY: Enact sensible reforms for fair voting
Opinions Column: The Political Backburner
The voting ritual has begun once again. And frankly, this year has been astonishing. There have been a record number of people going to vote in their respective primaries and caucuses, and an abhorrent man named Donald Trump leads the polls. On the bright side, it appears that democracy is alive, kicking and screaming. The people will have their voice heard.
But just because voting turnout is high doesn’t mean that democracy is working for everyone. The way congressional districts are drawn many times affects actual policy. The shape of a district determines who gets elected and who does not. The shape of a district determines which policy is implemented and which is ignored. The shape of a district determines who is accurately represented and who is not — for an entire decade.
After the census every 10 years, congressional district lines must be redrawn to ensure that people are accurately represented. Too often, however, it is the elected officials — partisan politicians — who draw district lines, absorbing and expelling voters to sway election outcomes. After the 2010 election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, partisan politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties controlled redistricting in 257 of the 435 congressional districts, while the remaining districts were drawn by independent, non-partisan committees or the courts, or a combination of the two. When the majority of districts are being drawn by people whose primary goal is to be re-elected, there is no surprise that politicians protect one another by including certain reliable voters in their district and moving unreliable voters elsewhere. Our leaders should not choose the voters — the voters should choose their leaders.
This reverse representation, however, has been happening for over 200 years, since Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts in 1812, approved a district map that critics claimed looked like a salamander — coining the term, “gerrymandering” to refer to partisan redistricting. And it has only got worse since then. Today, we have districts like Illinois’ fourth Congressional district, the “earmuff” district, with two semi-round areas connected at some points by a sliver that is not wider than interstate 294. When Rep. Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania's 7th District won an election in 2010, the map of his district changed significantly, with district boundaries drawn precisely around heavily liberal-leaning areas like Philadelphia while encompassing other more rural conservative areas. It’s hard to describe what his district looks like, but many liberals referred to it as the shape of an “oil spill” or “road kill.” But the biggest change was that it changed that district from one that generally voted a Democrat into office into one that will generally vote a Republican into office. The electorate did not change significantly, but the outcomes of elections do.
This is not unique to Pennsylvania or Illinois. Something similar happened in North Carolina. Before 2010, only 6 of 13 districts leaned or were reliably Republican. After the elections, however, lines were redrawn so that some Democratic voters were moved into heavy Republican areas, weakening a district which Democrats normally win. Now, in the state of North Carolina, Republicans are likely to win 10 of the 13 congressional districts.
The problems associated with redistricting are not unique to the Republican party. Democrats are known to notoriously gerrymander as well. Whichever party is in power will no doubt draw districts lines to maintain its power. The power to decide districts should not be given to people who, as history has shown, will abuse it. Ideally, power to decide districts should be given to an independent commission or citizens who, without regard to partisan tendencies, decide congressional district boundaries. These maps would then be sent to federal courts for approval. This removes the inherent partisanship when drawing districts, especially since courts would have to review and approve any maps. A similar set of guidelines should be followed from state to state to ensure that no matter where you live, congressional districts are being drawn in a fair, equal manner. At the very least, strict redistricting laws, like the ones in Florida that actually resulted in a slight net loss for the party controlling redistricting, should be in place. To our leaders: don’t tell us the politicians care about democracy — show us.
I am excited to vote this fall (and so should you). When we walk into the voting booth and close the curtain behind us, we expect that our vote matters and that we are choosing our politician — not the other way around. The debate over this policy and that policy becomes moot if our vote means nothing. People have sacrificed themselves so that each person could vote. Let’s honor that with sensible reform.
Vineet Shenoy is a School of Engineering sophomore majoring in electrical engineering. His column, “The Political Backburner,” runs monthly on Fridays.
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