Concerned is not a strong enough word to describe political scholar Norm Ornstein’s feelings about the polarization in today’s politics.
He is troubled by a slew of examples of vicious politics among Republicans such as the defeat of U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina in a June Republican run-off election. Inglis was defeated in part because he refused to call President Obama a socialist. When George W. Bush was president, there were of examples of Democrats hoping the 2007 Iraq war surge would fail, Ornstein noted.
Ornstein, who is co-director of the Election Reform Project in Washington, D.C., is concerned that in the current state of politics, candidates stand a better chance of getting elected if they play to the extremes of their parties. Among the many reasons Ornstein cited during an event this morning at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs for the current level of partisanship is redistricting.
Redistricting, which will be carried out after the 2010 Census numbers are officially released, has created a political geography in which candidates win based on playing to narrow interests. District lines, Ornstein said, have been drawn to favor a single political party.
“For me competitiveness has to be woven into this in a substantial way. I want districts where representatives have to believe that if they don’t appeal to people on both sides that they could be in jeopardy rather than believing that they only have to appeal to one small side. And I want competitiveness because I think competitiveness also builds in some heterogeneity so you get dissonant voices,” said Ornstein, who is originally from Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota.
That said, Ornstein said reform shouldn’t be pursued to the point that all 435 Congressional seats are up for grabs every two years.
“You do want some substantial level of continuity. You do want people who can get in and know that they are likely to be there for a significant period of time and make a commitment to the institution of which they are a part of. But you want to have enough-100 (or) 150 districts-where you have some genuine opportunity at any time for somebody to lose an election, to create a different level of responsiveness,” Ornstein said.
In discussing ways to make districts more competitive, he echoed a theme that has been debated in Minnesota: Perhaps districts shouldn’t be drawn by legislators.
In a panel discussion that followed Ornstein’s address, state officials discussed the recent debates in St. Paul about changing the redistricting process. Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, supported a proposal by Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, that would have created a panel of judges to draw the districts. The proposal, which was brought about as a way to prevent the recurring problem of redistricting being done by the courts because lawmakers couldn’t reach agreement, would still require the approval of the Legislature and the governor. The proposal passed the Senate, albeit with bipartisan opposition, and failed in the House.
Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, has offered a different type of redistricting reform and also concedes that the Pogemiller proposal has its merits.
“It all comes back the Legislature for a yay or nay. The question is: Who is drawing the maps? And is it appropriate for the people who are elected to be drawing those maps? Or is it appropriate for a group of people to start the map, finish it in the Legislature and move along that way?” Brod said.
One thing seems to be for certain, the clock has run-out on reform and the next round of redistricting in Minnesota will be carried out the old-fashioned way: By the Legislature.