Don’t look now, Americans, but many of your elections are rigged

Henry Waxman bowing out after 40 years
California Democrat Henry Waxman, a 40-year veteran of the House of Representatives, will hang it up after his 20th term. California is now an exception, but in most states, legislators’ reapportionment -- not necessarily voters -- winds up deciding elections.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

Henry Waxman has been elected to Congress 20 times, to serve 40 years. He became an Atlas to House Democrats and of the California delegation, shouldering power in a system that rewards many things, including tenure — or tenacity, which in D.C. can be the same thing.

Now, he says he has run his last congressional race.

His longevity and his forcefulness made him a major Capitol Hill player who left a significant mark on public policy. He brought the tobacco lobby to heel, helped enact the healthcare overhaul and has kept climate and environmental issues on the front burner.

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At his departure at the end of this year, the longevity of the state’s congressional delegation will take another hit; along with retiring Republican Buck McKeon and Democrat George Miller, the three will carry away with them 100 years of congressional experience and standing.

These departures are not an argument for term limits. People in their districts voted for them, again and again. But the departures should make voters outside of California question whether their legislatures are using reapportionment control to fool voters into thinking they decide who wins elections.

“Reapportionment” is a word that makes voters’ eyes glaze over, like “infrastructure.” Maybe we need a better term, like “turf wars.” Because voters probably don’t know it, but reapportionment is now where most election battles get lost and won -- not in the voting booth -- and that effectively disenfranchises voters of the candidate choices that should be theirs.

Right now, in most of the country, state legislators draw the crazy-quilt lines of congressional districts to suit their politics. In Texas, for example, Republicans have crafted GOP districts that are more secure than Ft. Knox.


Some states, among them California and Arizona, have independent commissions that draw the lines, taking into account voters’ interests, not politicians’, which gives voters more in the way of bona-fide candidate choices.

But in the states where legislators get to draw the lines, like foxes installing the security systems in the hen house, the districts may not be competitive or reflect the community at all. If they are competitive, it’s probably inadvertent, and it’s in the primaries. That explains why major Republican powerhouses have been toppled in heretofore slam-dunk primaries by out-of-nowhere tea partiers. And it explains why it’s been so hard to move debates away from the edges and into the middle, where most Americans reside politically.

Fairer reapportionment creates more substantive general elections. No question, the same candidates may have won their elections 20 times over, but the tone and focus of the contests might have been different.

Relentlessly gerrymandered districts create general elections in which a candidate from the other party appears on the ballot, but often as a sacrificial lamb, a token opponent in a race that was fixed years before by the drawing of lines on a map.

More evenly drawn districts can give voters more plausible choices in a general election. And more competition could draw more news coverage of a race that looks less like a predetermined rout and more like a real election.

Term limits make voters think they’re flexing political muscle and showing politicians who’s boss. Nothing of the kind. It’s controlling who controls reapportionment that empowers voters.

Savvy voters will insist, as Californians did, on a new way to reapportion districts. Take your choice: retired judges, computer software, a thousand lemurs with a thousand maps. Just don’t let the pols who have to play by the rules make the rules. Like Vegas, the house always wins that game.



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Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes