Voter identification laws, election security, and term limits are all issues that get significant amounts of attention in any conversation regarding how we conduct elections in the U.S. I've been glad to see another issue come to the forefront over the past decade, as I see it as threat to our democratic process that is more insidious than all the others. That issue is gerrymandering.
What was once a peculiarity that had harmful, but a somewhat limited, effect on elections is becoming recognized for the danger it poses to our ability to hold fair elections. Drawing district borders for partisan advantage has become much easier and much more precise, primarily due to a combination of two factors. Data on individuals and households is more thorough and accessible than in the past, and computers have become powerful enough to perform complex analyses of that data. The result is an increasing number of districts, wards, and precincts across the country that have become more ideologically pure through adjustments in their boundaries.
The conversations and debates most commonly had over this issue are also the most superficial. They revolve around partisan head counts and accusations of crass political motivations by those who set the boundaries. Though it is important to consider those types of results, there are also functional considerations that often get overlooked and are much more harmful to the legislative process.
Consider that each time a district is redrawn for partisan reasons, there is an increased likelihood of having extremely ideological candidates run for the office these boundaries define. And even if the candidates seeking that office aren't yet at an extreme on the ideological spectrum, the will of their constituents and repeated electoral pressures tend to influence them to move that way over time. This phenomenon applies to liberal candidates, districts, and constituencies, as well as conservative ones, and to Republicans as well as Democrats. As office holders - who presumably reflect the wishes and interests of their district - begin to gravitate to each end of the political spectrum, compromise in the legislative process becomes increasingly difficult.
Even if a representative or member of a state assembly might otherwise compromise on a bill or other proposal, he or she may not feel it would be appropriate to do so given the presumption of what voters want. Cynically, it may seem they are "playing politics" or pandering to their base. Others may view it as their being responsive to the people they represent. Either way, compromise becomes increasingly difficult and the work of the legislative body often goes unfinished. The effects of this dysfunction find their way out of the statehouses and capitals in the form of funding shortages and uncertainty for the education system, law enforcement, the military, and health care providers. Even proposals with broad popular support are often left to languish because of the distractions a lack of ability to compromise on other issues creates.
It has been said that gerrymandering is politicians choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians. It is an apt and concise description. But it doesn't fully address the underlying problems created when those politicians themselves are allowed to play games with those lines and boundaries after each census. Fringe politics are being introduced into our legislatures at the most basic level.
Possible solutions to the problem will be the subject of a future column, but right now, it is critical that we recognize gerrymandering is much more corrosive to our political discourse than a simple numerical analysis of legislative majorities would indicate.
Jason Nichols is District 2 Democratic Party chair, an instructor of political science at Northeastern State University, and former mayor of Tahlequah.