Recipe for a better Congress includes patience, incremental changes

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 16, 2013 

In this Oct. 14, 2013, photo, the U.S. Capitol is seen as a partial government shutdown entered its third week, in Washington, D.C.

AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE

I visited political science professor Todd Donovan at Western Washington University with the hope he could suggest a magic solution to the craziness in Congress.

Like many people - correct that, like most people - I'm dismayed that Congress has honed partisan conflict into a fine art form. I figured that gerrymandering - crafting election boundaries to benefit your party - was to blame, so fixing that would resolve the problem.

Alas, Donovan, the author of many books and articles about electoral politics, didn't share my notion.

While he does favor redistricting by independent bodies instead of by self-interested lawmakers, he's skeptical whether that would produce dramatic changes.

He's also a big fan of open primaries, instead of closed primaries and caucuses, to decide which candidates meet in the general election.

But even if both changes are adopted, which California recently did, competitive campaigns will likely remain the exception rather than the rule, Donovan said. That's because there are other forces at play beyond tweaking the mechanics of elections. Donovan's newest book, after all, is titled "The Limits of Electoral Reform."

Among those other forces, greater mobility means people are freer to sort themselves into like-minded communities.

"Where you live predicts more strongly how you're going to vote," Donovan said.

That doesn't mean, say, that Democrats can't be found in Oklahoma City and Republicans can't be found in Seattle; it does mean there's not a lot of them in either place. So when it comes to drawing election boundaries in such places, it's difficult to come up with enough D's or R's to wage a fair campaign fight.

"It's hard to draw a two-party competitive district anymore," Donovan said.

Proposals to make it easier to vote, if you're a Democrat, or more difficult to vote, if you're a Republican, are another battleground. Democrats presume they will benefit from easier access to the ballot, but Donovan said previous changes, such as "motor voter" laws, didn't have a major partisan impact.

That's because you can lead people to register but you can't make them vote. Generally, Democrats and moderates are less likely to vote than are Republicans, Donovan said. So while having people register is important, it's equally important that they feel motivated to vote.

Then, there's the issue of money. Campaigns are more expensive and candidates have greater access to rich donors. Big money can make a big difference, with moderates often left on the sidelines.

"The ends of the political spectrum are really good raising money in big amounts," Donovan said.

Some people say the split in Congress reflects a split in the American public, so they're happy with the situation. If you're not in the group, what's a person to do? After talking to Donovan, here's my modest list:

- Vote, and encourage other people to do the same.

- Support laws to make voting easier. Whether that benefits one party or the other isn't the point. Elections should reflect the votes of as many people as possible. Period.

- Support independent approaches to redistricting. Setting election boundaries is too important to leave to the politicians.

- Support open primaries if your state doesn't have them. Fortunately, Washington does.

- Narrow the gap between rich and poor. Some researchers say that when the middle class shrank, Democrats and Republicans, like iron shavings drawn to opposite poles of a magnet, camped themselves at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Hey, if you can help the middle class and help Congress at the same time, go for it.

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com.

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