The American people have two main choices when it comes to electing politicians. The Republicans and the Democrats, America’s century-and-a-half political version of the Coke vs. Pepsi challenge, are continually changing the rules of the game to ensure their continued stranglehold over the American political process.
Given their near-total control over all aspects of American political and governmental life, we shouldn’t be surprised that in this time of great political upheaval, rather than running better candidates or serving their constituents more effectively, both sides resort to tinkering with the rules to achieve desired outcomes. But this process has become increasingly blatant. And it has been rearing its ugly head with increasing frequency and virulence. It is time we brought it more powerfully to light and raised our voices together in unified disgust.
In California last summer, state Sen. Josh Newman was the subject of a recall campaign. When it appeared that proponents would be successful in gathering the required number of signatures to force a recall election, the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a law that was then signed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown requiring county elections officials to abandon long-standing and well accepted random sampling practices and to instead review each signature individually. This brazen effort to protect one of their own and silence the voice of the voters failed; the recall petition qualified and the election will now be scheduled.
Gerrymandering, the process by which the majority party draws legislative and congressional district lines to its own advantage, has been an issue since the word was coined in 1812. Both sides do it, but neither side admits to approving of the practice because it is so obviously wrong for politicians to entrench themselves by choosing their voters. They know that what they win in one state where they control the legislature can easily be lost in the next where they are in the minority.
Pennsylvania has been ground zero for the latest fight over who draws lines, how they’re drawn and whether legislators are inherently biased in their own favor when doing so. In 2011, a Pennsylvania state court invalidated the Republican-drawn map, citing its overwhelming disadvantage to Democrats. The Republican-dominated state legislature responded with a re-drawn map that was still so lopsided in the GOP’s favor that earlier this year the state Supreme Court threw up its hands, threw out the revised district map and decided it had to draw one.
There are now two federal cases regarding who Pennsylvanians will vote for in this year’s primary and general elections. Rather than doing their job in the manner voters would expect, state Republicans chose to push the boundaries (literally and figuratively) of their authority to protect their majority.
Last week in Georgia, Republican state legislators moved a bill that would shorten voting hours in the city of Atlanta by an hour – with polls closing at 7 p.m. rather than 8. The balance of the state currently closes at 7 and, to justify this proposal to override a local decision, the sponsor of the bill cited the purported need for statewide “uniformity” in voting times as justification for the shortened hours in Georgia’s most populous city. However, the partisan purpose of the proposed change could not be clearer.
Given the overwhelmingly Democratic and African-American makeup of Atlanta, and the recent election of a Democrat whose district spans both the city and adjacent Cobb County, the Republican-backed legislation appears less about temporal continuity than reducing the ability, and therefore the number, of Atlanta voters who can participate in elections.
If the Republicans in the legislature were truly concerned about uniformity and not seeking to undercut the ability of all Georgians to vote, they could have simply passed a bill that extended voting hours to 8 p.m. across the state. Of course, that it is not what they proposed and not what they passed because their true intent was to achieve a partisan advantage at the expense of disenfranchised voters.
Neither party is above using its power at the local, state and federal level to push forward its agenda. Nor do the parties treat election rules – those that are supposed to allow us to exercise our most sacred right as citizens and to guarantee free and fair elections — as sacrosanct or beyond their reach for partisan gain. What matters most is achieving the greatest possible short-term political advantage regardless of the long-term consequences.
As voters, we should never forget that elections have consequences. During this primary election season and this fall as the general election heats up, let’s start showing Republican and Democratic politicians what those consequences look like then they twist the rules for their own benefit.