‘Safe seats’ stifle democracy

California and other states have created nonpartisan commissions to redraw congressional districts. The result may be more competitive races and a healthier democracy.

In the 2002 and 2004 elections for the US House, 99 percent of incumbents in both parties were reelected. In the last two midterm elections – the first a Democratic landslide, the second a Republican one – nearly 90 percent of incumbents still were reelected.

With just under a year to go before the next national elections, states are entering the final stages of their once-a-decade reapportionment of House seats, based on the results of the latest census. According to a recent count by The Associated Press, 19 states had still to figure out how to redraw their congressional districts. At least four that have already drawn up new maps face challenges in court.

When redistricting is the responsibility of state legislatures, as it is in 37 states, it becomes a crassly political process in which the party in power tries to redraw districts to its advantage.

RELATED: Redistricting 101: Eight facts about redrawing the US political map

While it might seem logical to suppose that districts would be constructed to favor the ruling party in as many districts as possible, another principle usually trumps this: Incumbents want to be given not just a slight edge but a completely “safe seat,” districts in which their party holds an overwhelming advantage in registration.

To accomplish this, the opposing party is granted a few districts in which it will hold an overwhelming majority, creating “safe seats” on both sides of the aisle. State politicians also favor “safe seats” because long-term incumbents accrue seniority and rise to leadership positions, enhancing their influence.

The losers? The voting public, beginning with the voters who favor the minority party in these gerrymandered districts. They have little hope of ever being represented by a member of Congress who reflects their political views.

But American political dialogue is also a loser: Politicians in safe districts who never face a serious opponent can keep telling their “base” what it wants to hear and have no need to listen to other viewpoints. This only perpetuates and exacerbates the climate of extreme politics that has, ironically, earned Congress an unprecedented level of disgust from the American public.

California, which as the most populous state has the largest number of seats in the US House (53), is the latest among a group of 13 states that are bypassing their legislatures to rejig congressional districts through a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission.

While the California experiment is new and still under way, it shows promise. Early calculations suggest at least a dozen of its House races next year should be competitive. And early signs suggest that the balance of representatives from each party (currently 34 Democrats and 19 Republicans) may not change radically, an indication that the new nonpartisan way of redistricting didn’t tilt in favor of one party or the other.

With California’s new district lines, some long-serving members of Congress from both parties, including Rep. David Dreier, the Republican chairman of the Rules Committee, and Rep. Howard Berman, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, finally will face tough reelection battles.[Editor's note: The original version of this editorial misspelled Mr. Dreier's name.

The state’s 14-member commission is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans, and four independents. The first eight members, chosen by lot from a group screened by the nonpartisan state auditor’s office, picked the other six. The new district map had to win at least three votes from each of the three groups: Democrats, the GOP, and independents. The map was approved overwhelmingly by a 12-2 vote.

House members aren’t voted into office for life: They are expected to answer to voters every two years. Backroom political machinations have created a system of “lifetime” or “safe” seats that undermines a healthy democracy. States should put in place redistricting systems that will be more likely to bust up some of these fiefdoms every decade as they redraw their district lines.

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