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Nonpartisan Districting:  A Solution to Political Polarization?

Tom Rowe

September 4, 2013

Category: Society > Government and Politics

A source of some of our most serious political problems today is polarization of our parties. There used to be considerable overlap between moderate, even liberal, Republicans and moderate, even conservative, Democrats. That overlap, which had made bipartisan deals possible, is largely gone in the federal Congress. The result is either gridlock when neither party is in full control (as in Congress today) or dominance by one party with fairly extreme positions as in some states.

Partly, the polarization is natural, as the South has replaced conservative Democrats with conservative Republicans and moderate or liberal Republicans have died out (literally or figuratively) in other parts of the country. But polarization is also a product of deliberate measures, especially gerrymandering of federal House and state legislative districts to produce safe seats and legislative majorities for the party that controls the districting. The result is districts (many for the party drawing the lines, fewer for the minority) in which the real contest is the party primary of the dominant party, with very liberal Democrats likely to win over moderates in Democratic districts and very conservative Republicans likely to beat moderates in Republican districts — then being locked into extreme pledges they can't water down for fear of a primary challenge from the more extreme members of the party's base.

If you're with me about the problem, is there a solution? The recent reputation of the state of California, where I now live, for political dysfunction may make it surprising for many to hear that we may have found our way out of these woods. Our system of initiative and referendum, which has given us many terrible things, has also given us nonpartisan redistricting so that we have many competitive rather than virtually all safe Congressional and legislative districts. The result here happens to have been good for Democrats, which won't always be true with nonpartisan redistricting (Democrats tend demographically to be more concentrated, so nonpartisan districting may often somewhat favor Republicans).

A second key provision, also adopted by initiative and referendum in this suddenly functional state, is the open or "jungle" primary. There are no party primaries for party nominations; everybody runs in a single primary. So if a Republican and a Democrat are first and second in the open primary, they stand against each other in the general election. But if in a Republican district a conservative Republican and a moderate Republican come first and second, they stand against each other — which gives the moderate a chance that wouldn't have been there if the conservative Republican had a Democrat for an opponent. Similarly, in a strongly Democratic district, Republicans can vote for the moderate rather than the very liberal Democrat if those are the two finalists.

Getting away from partisan districting and polarization will be a long slog. Several states, in addition to California, have done some of it already. Take the districting away from the politicians!