By John Krull
INDIANAPOLIS – Once upon a time, gerrymandering was a dark art.
Ambitious and unscrupulous politicians looked for ways to draw legislative maps that gave their party an edge. Democrat or Republican, their goal was less to see elections reflect the will of the people than it was to gain and maintain power, whatever the cost.
John Krull, publisher, TheStatehouseFile.com
But it was hard.
For much of this country’s history, the information needed by those who wanted to create legislative districts for partisan advantage was either hard to come by, imprecise or out of date. Drawing the maps to favor one’s fellow Republicans or Democrats involved a massive amount of research and more than a little bit of guess work.
The explosion in the past two generations of information technology transformed gerrymandering from a dark art into a dark science.
Political professionals who are unburdened by conscience and motivated more by devotion to party than love of country now can draw maps that benefit their fellow partisans with surgical precision. They can determine not just from town to town or neighborhood to neighborhood or even block to block who votes for Republicans and who votes for Democrats but house by house.
That is why legislative maps now have all the symmetry of jigsaw puzzles.
We might be able to write all this off as just one more example of politicians playing games if it weren’t for one thing.
The evolution of gerrymandering from art to science has had disastrous consequences for the country.
Our government – be it at the national, state or local level – is supposed to be the place where we resolve our differences. Our constitution is a product of the age of reason. We built in so many safeguards for the rights of minorities – including giving small, lightly populated states the same number of senators as the biggest and most heavily peopled ones – because our founders wanted to make sure that as many interests as possible were represented, and in ways that encouraged them to be heard.
In other words, our nation was built on compromise.
That’s what we’ve lost – what gerrymandering has cost us.
We need look no further than the ongoing dysfunction in both our national and state capitols.
We are a divided nation. In the most recent election, 49 percent of Americans voted for Republicans in races for the U.S. House of Representatives and 48 percent for Democrats. Somehow, though, that translated into a hefty majority for the GOP.
The situation is more pronounced here in Indiana. Between 55 and 60 percent of Hoosiers vote Republican in Indiana House and Senate races. Somehow, though, those votes translate into a House that is 70 percent Republican and a Senate that is 80 percent GOP.
But that’s only half of it – and not the worst half.
Because the districts are drawn so that officeholders don’t have to worry about challenges from the other party, they don’t feel they need consider any views other than their own. The only thing they fear is a primary challenge from someone who is even more extreme or intransigent than they are.
Thus, in a political system built on compromise, we send people to represent us who are unwilling or incapable – or both – of reasoning with others.
And then we wonder why things don’t work.
Redistricting is not the sexiest of subjects, but it’s become increasingly clear that we won’t be able to solve many, and perhaps any, of our other pressing problems until we solve this one. The system we have now – the one the politicians have crafted for themselves – rewards people who exacerbate problems rather than solve them.
That won’t change until we make it change.
There’s going to be a community conversation about the importance of non-partisan redistricting at Franklin College Sept 19. It should be but one of many.
They represent the only way we’re going to reclaim our nation, our state and our communities.
Just to be clear, this isn’t a partisan rant.
Given half a chance, Democrats would be – and have been – every bit as greedy and unscrupulous as Republicans have been. That’s why it’s important to not let politicians draw their own maps.
They clearly can’t be trusted with the task.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI, 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.