March 31, 2016

Political Gerrymandering and 2016’s Angry Electorate

John Tanner, Owen Taylor

As appeared on Bloomberg Government.

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinion and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by former Congressman John Tanner (D-TN). He is the Vice Chairman of Prime Policy Group.

During my time as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and as Prime Policy Group’s Vice Chairman, I have consistently fought for redistricting reform throughout my 22-year tenure in Washington. As a moderate Democrat who served Tennessee’s conservative 8th district, which has a Cook Partisan Voting Index score of R+15, I, more than anyone, understand the competitive nature of maintaining a seat in the House. Our representative system, which demands a certain give and take among competing ideas in order to work, has become increasingly hindered by the very process that is used to determine how Members of Congress are elected.

Last year Rep. Jim Cooper introduced my namesake bill, H.R. 1347, the John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act. One of the legislation’s key tenants would establish independent state commissions through which redistricting would occur. Its aim would be to prevent partisan-controlled state legislatures from tailoring districts and give their party the best chances of success. Yet, despite H.R 1347 having received bipartisan cosponsor support, leadership in both parties have failed to move it forward.

In the 114th Congress, virtually 20% of House elections were uncontested; a figure that’s almost unimaginable in a representative democracy like the United States. Many more seats were non-competitive. I would argue that, rather than letting voters choose their representatives, the current system allows partisan-controlled state legislatures to choose their voters.

Partisan redistricting conducted by state legislatures is what has gradually created a hostile environment for centrists, independents, and both moderate Democrats and Republicans. Within party primaries, the most debilitating critique a candidate may incur comes when being accused of not being “conservative” or “liberal” enough. Strict ideological purists have emerged as a result. As both parties seem to further widen this ideological divide, voters increasingly feel alienated; particularly when an overwhelming number of Americans find themselves near the middle of the political sphere ideologically. Yet, unwillingness to compromise stymies positive growth and leads to a greater tendency for gridlock-something political gerrymandering seems to fuel.

As more and more districts throughout the country are redrawn to favor a specific constituency, the incentive for both sides to work together continues to diminish. This has resulted in an increasingly frustrated electorate, and rightfully so. Americans no longer see the government as an entity that works on their behalf. This frustration has manifested itself throughout the 2016 election cycle. CNN exit polls in Mississippi and Michigan reported 9 out of 10 Republican voters, and 7 out of 10 Democratic voters as being angry or dissatisfied with government. Primary voters and caucus-goers in other states have shown nearly identical numbers. This has led to an ideal climate for outsider candidates, versus a growing stigma associated with establishment candidates.

There’s strong evidence to support the frustration of the electorate stemming from political gerrymandering. Until our system again allows the voters to choose their representatives, and not the other way around, disgruntled voters will continue challenging the status quo of the establishment.

The opinions presented in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Bloomberg Government or Bloomberg LP.