The current session of the Virginia General Assembly, dominated as usual by partisan bickering, suggests once more the growing dysfunction of our two-party system.
This year, the two parties squared off over a surprise Republican attempt to gerrymander the Senate in order to shift one seat from Democratic-leaning to Republican-leaning. This would preserve the GOP’s narrow advantage in the Senate, which they now hold because Republican Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling wields the tie-breaking vote.
The Senate vote was a particularly nasty piece of business. A blatantly partisan bill, affecting the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of Virginians, was introduced and quickly passed while Democratic Senator Henry Marsh – a leader of Virginia’s civil rights movement – was absent, attending the Martin Luther King Day inauguration of Barack Obama.
That attempt ultimately failed, as has a Republican effort to change the way in which Virginia’s electoral votes are awarded. This extraordinarily partisan measure – had it been in effect in 2012 – would have given Mitt Romney seven of Virginia’s 11 electoral votes, even though Romney lost the statewide vote.
On these two measures, Democratic legislators got to wear the white hats – but only because the Republicans had already grabbed the black hats. The real problem is that neither party is willing to end the malign practice of gerrymandering – an age-old practice by which state legislatures draw up districts in which only one party has a realistic chance of winning.
In effect, gerrymandering creates a situation in which – instead of the voters choosing their representatives – the representatives choose their voters.
This is, in itself, inherently undemocratic. When districts are gerrymandered, it becomes almost impossible to vote out an incumbent – much less enough incumbents to replace the party in power.
Gerrymandering is becoming more and more effective in the age of computers. If you use the internet, thousands of online companies gather information about your preferences and interests. Armed with this knowledge, it’s possible to shape a legislative district in which the incumbent is simply unbeatable. A state senator, delegate, or congressman can serve – should he or she choose – for life.
But the problem goes beyond that. When a district has been gerrymandered so that only one party has a chance of winning the general election, that party’s nomination is essentially equivalent to winning in November.
Party nominations are won in all sorts of democratic ways – none of them very democratic. Sometimes, there are primaries, at which all citizens are allowed to vote, but the fact is that few citizens actually show up. Small, well-organized groups, often groups with extreme agendas, can nominate a candidate who has little in common with the majority of voters in the district.
Yet that candidate, once nominated, is almost assured of election or re-election.
And that’s not the worst of it. Under complex party rules, a party will often choose its candidate in a convention or caucus – a poorly-publicized process which never even comes to the attention of most voters.
Occasionally, a nominee is chosen by a party committee, with perhaps a dozen political insiders picking a candidate whose eventual election is pre-ordained by the gerrymandered shape of his district.
All of this explains much of the dysfunction we now find in our political system. One-party districts predictably produce more extreme representatives than competitive districts, where each party much woo moderate voters.
Extreme representatives are, predictably, less interested in working with members of the other party.
The effects of gerrymandering often prove disastrous in state legislatures, including Virginia’s.
They have produced near-paralysis in Congress, where – largely as a result of partisan redistricting – bi-partisan cooperation has almost disappeared. Conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are long gone, and moderates and pragmatists of either party – historically the most effective legislators – have become an endangered species.
Yet, in the trench warfare which now defines our two-party political system, computer-assisted gerrymandering – using the vast amounts of data we have all supplied by accessing the internet – is a weapon which neither side can afford to surrender.
Only an outside reform movement – a third party or well-organized pressure group – can compel the necessary reforms.
There are several possibilities. In Iowa and California, non-partisan redistricting commissions have replaced gerrymandering by partisan legislatures. This seems the simplest, most “American” solution.
But in many modern, democratic countries, other methods have been developed which guarantee that every voter can have a say in the choice of a legislator. Some employ variations on the model known as “proportional representation,” by which parties win legislative seats in direct proportion to the number of citizens voting for them.
In Britain, a rising third party – the Liberal Democrats – have made electoral reform their central issue.
The point is fundamental: Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.
Surely, this is a reform all Virginians could embrace.