Make political districts work for people, not parties

Over the last few weeks, much of the sickness afflicting our political system has been on full display. The partisan dramatics surrounding the debt ceiling debate has convinced many people that there is a real crisis in our democracy.

No matter what you think about the result, the process was ugly, and it left many Americans completely alienated from our politics. According to an Aug. 1 CNN/Opinion Research Poll, on the day of the debt ceiling compromise, only 14 percent of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing.

For years, partisan politics has bred civic disengagement and undermined civil discourse. In our current political culture, talking heads create the narratives, dialogue can be bitterly divisive and voters are encouraged to tune in for sound bites, but tune out if they are looking for honest debate about issues that impact our communities.

Too often, the quest for real-world solutions has been held hostage by politicians’ quest for political points.

And while the political environment under Georgia’s Gold Dome is perhaps not as poisonous as Washington’s, our last legislative session had its share of high-profile issues — from immigration reform to the HOPE scholarship cuts to so-called “tax reform” — that were marked by ideological rhetoric and party line votes, rather than real debate about the impact that these policies will have on our great state.

Beginning on Monday, we have an opportunity to take a crucial step toward curing this sickness.

Every decade, members of the Georgia General Assembly take up legislative and congressional redistricting, the process by which the Legislature redraws the boundaries of the various districts that members of Congress and state legislators represent. The Congressional and state legislative districts that we draw this month will create the incentives that will determine the type of government that we get.

Traditionally, the party in power draws the districts — and through computer-assisted gerrymandering, politicians get to pick the voters that they want. More often than not, legislative districts are drawn to be “safe” for one party, and outcomes of general elections are decided in primaries. For all practical purposes, this system has made the primary voters — who are by definition the most partisan — the only voters who matter. For example, in 2010, every member of the state Senate received at least 56 percent of the vote in their district (and all but three received more than 60 percent). Thirty-three of the 56 incumbent senators were unopposed in the general election.

In the end, the hyper-partisan rules of the game dictate hyper-partisan outcomes. When we draw maps full of safely partisan districts, we get a political system that constantly pressures legislators to retreat into rigid partisan positions. Then, when it comes time to legislate on the highest profile issues, the voices of moderates are stifled, reaching across the aisle becomes an act of betrayal and real debate is supplanted by partisan bickering.

Partisan maps that favor one party over another, by definition, also falsely inflate that party’s representation and guarantee that the Legislature is always out of touch with the people. This encourages extremism, and regardless of whether the hard-line is held by Democrats or Republicans, such views are almost always out of line with what most Georgia voters want, and with the real results that our state needs.

Of course, our elected officials can and should rise above partisanship and seek out real solutions. But we also need a system that rewards, rather than punishes, this good conduct.

Drawing fewer partisan districts will not solve all of our problems, but it will set the stage for improvement. Earlier this year, we sponsored legislation calling for an independent redistricting commission to remove the partisanship that infects the rules of the game, and to help ensure that Georgia’s legislative and congressional districts are balanced and fairly drawn. An independent commission would work to improve public faith in the electoral process, rather than enshrine partisan power of one kind or another.

As Democrats, our independent commission proposal was modeled on the findings of a blue ribbon committee formed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, and was virtually identical to the proposal put forward in 2007 by a group of Republican legislators. Neither proposal passed.

Let us not hold hostage the people of this great state. The General Assembly still belongs to them. And in the coming weeks, Georgians can ask their legislators to rise above the partisanship of the current system, and create a set of legislative districts that will reflect the true will of the people, not merely the will of a political party.

State Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur, represents DeKalb County.

State Sen. Hardie Davis, D-Augusta, represents the Augusta area.