16 Oct 2013

Has redrawing political boundaries paralysed US politics?

As the US Senate leaders continue to negotiate to end the current fiscal crisis, it is clear that Republican efforts to redraw political districts are having unintended consequences.

Meet Elbridge Gerry. The man who gave his name to the dodgy electoral practice that created the current political crisis in America.

As governor of Massachusetts in 1810 Gerry re-drew the electoral boundaries in his state to favour his Democrat-Republican Party candidates over the Federalists.

The shapes of these new constituencies were so contrived a popular cartoon of the time said one district looked like a dragon – or a salamander. And the practice of manipulating electoral boundaries for party political gain has ever since been known as Gerry-Mandering. Geddit?

Here endeth the history lesson. Because the practice of gerrymandering is still alive and well in the US today.

Political crisis

And it is to blame for the current political crisis.

So many seats in the House of Representatives have been gerrymandered to make sure they will always send a Republican or a Democrat to Washington only about one in five house seats are genuinely competitive.

The rest are a dead cert. And that has serious intended consequences.

If a Republican congressman knows that he can never be beaten by a Democrat then the only way he can lose his seat is if he is challenged in a primary election by someone from his own side- by someone from the Tea Party for example.

This is how the small Tea Party wing controls the rest of the Republican party.

It is gerrymandering that gives the Tea Party so much influence over most of their Republican representatives.

It’s a brave congressman or woman who dares to defy the Tea Party because they know they will be challenged from the right.

In Tennessee I met the Tea Party’s Joe Carr who is standing against Republican Senator Lamar Alexander in next year’s primary because he doesn’t think Alexander’s voting record is conservative enough.

He told me he is deliberately making life difficult for any Republican thinking of compromising with the President because that is how democracy works.

‘Senate surrender caucus’

As lawmakers in Washington are desperately trying to cut some kind of deal to avoid hitting the debt ceiling Republican Tim Huelskamp, Kansas Republican told the New York Times: “We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” he said, talking about attempts to reach a compromise. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

In other words moderate Republicans dare not make any compromise, or the Tea Party will unseat them before next year’s mid-term elections.

North Carolina's 4th congressional district

Just look at North Carolina’s 4th congressional district.

Drawn this ridiculous shape so that the Republicans who control the state could shove as many Democrats as they could into one constituency and create a number of safe seats for their own GOP candidates.

In Maryland the 3rd District looks more like a Rorschach test than a congressional seat.

3rd District, Maryland

Once again this is a district designed to house as many of the states Democrats as possible so that Republicans get the run of the rest of the state.

Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years on a state by state basis by whichever political party controls the statehouse.

Democrats are certainly not above these practices but they haven’t had much of a chance recently.

Republicans were in control of many of the states that recently redrew their boundaries, and you can see how successful they were by looking at the 2012 election returns. Democrats won one million more votes than the Republicans, yet Republicans won 33 more seats.

Now the Republicans are reaping what they sowed: they have an ungovernable party where a small insurgent minority can control the agenda by threatening the moderates.

They have no clear strategy for how they are going to get the country out of the mess they led it into, yet still they force the Republican leadership to bow to their demands.