The Incumbent Protection Racket

How gerrymandering hurts democracy


This year's election will be exciting. Given the disenchantment of voters with President Obama and the Democratic Congress, there is every prospect that your Democratic representative will be shown the door. Given the generally anti-incumbent mood, there is every prospect that your Republican representative will be out on the street.

In your dreams. When analysts say this is going to be a competitive election, they don't mention that for most districts and most voters, absolutely nothing is going to change. Come January, the U.S. House of Representatives is going to look a lot like it does right now.

There are 435 seats in the House, and every one of them is up for a vote on Tuesday. But the consensus is that no more than 100 are "in play," with a chance of changing party hands. The other 335 races will hold all the suspense of a Harlem Globetrotters game.

Nor will all the competitive districts actually make the switch. The GOP needs to gain a net of 39 seats to win control of the House, and Republicans would be thrilled to pick up 50.

Does that mean lots of entrenched career pols are going to be evicted? Fewer than you might think. Many of the changes will occur not because a member of Congress loses but because a member has decided not to run. Even this year, the typical incumbent has nothing to worry about.

One important reason is that once every decade, after each census, politicians in most states get to redraw congressional and legislative districts. They usually take the opportunity to advance the interests of one party or the other or both. Such gerrymandering often yields weirdly shaped districts designed to assure that whoever is in office stays in office.

It works. In the U.S. House of Representatives, over the past five elections, incumbents have been re-elected at an average rate of 96 percent. According to my unscientific calculations, a congressman is more likely to be eaten by a polar bear while panning for gold in Key West than to be voted out of office.

In California, where state legislators have elevated gerrymandering to an art form, it's almost unheard of for a state representative or senator to be evicted at the polls, or even for a party to suffer a setback.

Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, reports that since the legislature created new lines in 2001, only one of the state's 53 congressional seats has changed from one party to the other. In a total of 212 elections, only two incumbents have lost.

None of the 40 state Senate seats has switched parties. In the 1990s, by contrast, courts drew the boundaries, and 10 congressional seats and seven state Senate seats changed partisan hands.

California exemplifies the disconnect between voters who want to exercise authentic self-government and elected officials who prefer not to let a little thing like democracy deprive them of their livelihood. The latter group is very good at stifling competition at the polls.

The solution is obvious: Take the decisions away from those who have a powerful interest in the outcome, and give them to an independent commission. Californians voted in 2008 to do exactly that. But this year, opponents managed to get another ballot initiative to return control to the legislature.

What arguments do they offer? Because former elected officials, candidates, and lobbyists are barred from serving, they say in the official voter guide, "those who have deep experience, knowledge or interest in government will be excluded." Right. And burglary laws should be repealed because burglars were not invited to help draft them.

The commission, the critics lament, would "strip voters' power to determine who represents us." The theory is that when we elect legislators in rigged districts to create new rigged districts, democracy triumphs. But the point of the commission is to give voters a power they so obviously lack when politicians get to choose the people who are supposed to choose them.

One of the bedrock beliefs of our democracy is that here, the people rule. Gerrymandering is the legislators' way of saying: Not if we can help it.