Start planning now to create fairer elections in the future

Voters in 2016 and over the next few years will select the politicians who will control the next round of redistricting for state and federal offices.
Voters in 2016 and over the next few years will select the politicians who will control the next round of redistricting for state and federal offices. AP

It’s not too early to start planning for 2020. Don’t panic. We’re not talking about planning for the 2020 presidential election — although, undoubtedly, some already are.

Rather, we mean planning for the decennial U.S. Census count and the redrawing of congressional and legislative districts that will follow in Kansas, Missouri and other states.

In Kansas, the Legislature’s research department is already thinking ahead. Members of that department met recently with U.S. Census Bureau officials to discuss the upcoming count and find out about the computer software that will be used.

Voters in Missouri and Kansas should be thinking ahead, as well. The decisions they make in coming elections will pick the players who will decide how the next round of redistricting is accomplished. Both state legislatures are heavily Republican, and liable to stay that way.

If nothing changes before 2020, Republican lawmakers in the two states will go out of their way to draw maps that protect the party in power, just as Democrats would if they were in control.

The result is likely to be gerrymandered districts that snake across the states, dividing communities of interest and diluting the representation of the opposition party as much as possible. Elected officials will pick their voters, rather than the other way around.

With some early planning and effort now, however, there might just be time to convince legislators that democracy isn’t supposed to work that way.

Computer technology makes it relatively simple to draw districts that are compact and contiguous and that keep communities of interest, such as neighborhoods, together.

It’s a tall order, asking legislators to give up the power to serve their own base, political interests. But getting the redistricting process out of legislative hands is the only way to ensure that partisan interests don’t supersede the public interest.

Most states let legislators draw their own districts and those for Congress. Redistricting reform advocates have pushed for better alternatives, and a few of states have adopted them.

Some use bipartisan panels with representatives from the two main parties. Missouri has such a commission to draw the lines for state legislative districts. That’s an improvement, but it’s far from perfect. When the two major parties get to set the rules, it perpetuates the already high burdens for third parties to make inroads.

Some other states have taken a nonpartisan path. In California, voters used the referendum process to take the redistricting process out of legislators’ hands and put it under an independent citizens’ panel. The resulting map after the 2010 census led to the highest turnover in California’s congressional delegation in years.

For most states, though, the redistricting process remains not only inherently undemocratic and unfair, but it also plays a large role in the current dysfunction in Congress. Safe partisan districts naturally move members of Congress to the extremes. Incumbents don’t fear challenges from the opposition party, they fear challenges from more extreme candidates within their own party during a primary.

This polarization has made it nearly impossible for the parties to work together, and members of Congress end up representing the ideological bases of their party as opposed to the broad political middle most Americans actually inhabit.

The best thing we can do for our democracy is to begin pushing — now — for redistricting reform that will ensure voters have a real choice in who they elect.