Obama: There are real problems with how we are electing our representatives

Posted by Michelle C. Whittaker on August 14, 2015
Image: "Crimes Against Geography" from the Washington Post
This summer, electoral reform is taking center stage as leaders from both major parties and voter advocacy groups raise concerns over the dysfunctional nature of our elections and government. To achieve real reform, elected officials must move beyond simply addressing redistricting issues and grapple with how our politicians are elected and how they represent us in Congress. We must advocate meaningful changes like ranked choice voting and districts with more than one representative.

In an encouraging move towards progress, politicians both nationally and locally are all stepping up to support independent redistricting reform. When asked in a recent NPR interview to comment on the need for changes to our political rules, President Obama was blunt. “I think that there are real problems with how we are electing our representatives.” The President goes on to link polarization in Congress back to persistent gerrymandering and uncompetitive elections, highlighting California’s recent shift to drawing congressional districts with nonpartisan citizens commissions.

President Obama is not alone in denouncing the toxic and polarizing effects of gerrymandered districts. In fact, concerns surrounding the wildly illogical and uncompetitive districts across the country are solidly bipartisan. Calls for redistricting reform and independent redistricting commissions are growing on both sides of the aisle.

Maryland Governor Announces Plans for Redistricting Commission

Just last week, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who we have encouraged to stand up for voting rights in the past, announced his strong support for independent redistricting commissions and charged an 11-member bipartisan panel with developing a new process for determining district lines. This commission is tasked with drafting a proposed amendment to the Maryland state constitution which would remove the power to draw congressional districts from elected officials. As Doug Clopp, director of outreach and advocacy for FairVote notes, “What we really need is to have a big discussion in Maryland and also across the country about how does our current system of winner take all [elections], dominated by two major parties, really reflect how we want to be governed?”

Both parties, Hogan is quick to note, are at times guilty of using gerrymandered districts to their advantage. Opposition to independent redistricting and other fair representation plans almost always originates in the party that stands to benefit from maintaining the status quo. Democrats in Maryland, for example, are insisting that redistricting reform must occur at the federal level first to level the playing field across the country. Currently in Maryland, Democrats are overwhelmingly favored in 7 out of the 8 congressional districts.

Among voter advocacy groups, Governor Hogan’s plan has won widespread praise. Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the executive director of Common Cause Maryland, supports the Governors proposal as a “first step toward a more open, transparent, and impartial process." She also criticized the current district lines in Maryland, saying they “sprawl across the state, slicing and dicing communities and neighborhoods, discouraging civic engagement in our democracy.”

Like President Obama, Governor Hogan traces the negative effects of gerrymandering back to consistently safe seats and a lack of healthy political competition. “Gerrymandering is a form of political subterfuge,” Hogan says, “that stifles real political debate and deprives citizens of meaningful choices.” Maryland’s growing number of unaffiliated voters may also make the state more amenable to reforms that lead to more competitive elections.

Structural reform is the key to making our political system functional again. 

Independent redistricting are a key first step on the path to truly fair elections, but they won’t be the solution to deeper issues of unrepresentative districts. Even with independently, fairly designed districts, the winner will still often be pre-ordained.

For real reflective democracy, we need to elect multiple representatives in each district using ranked choice voting. When only one person is elected from a district, a whole group of views and voters don’t get representation, even if that district is fairly drawn. This solution would get rid of the zero-sum elections we have now, and make it so that every voter participates in a meaningful election no matter how politicians draw district lines. No politician would be able to use redistricting to create safe seats for themselves, and the representation in the legislature would more accurately reflect the views of the people.

This way, instead of just one group winning and everyone else losing, all significant groups of voters could elect a representative that would reflect their voice. Redistricting is a critical and encouraging first step, but to break up gridlock and get politicians that really represent the people, we must advocate for more impactful reforms.
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