Reform redistricting - Ky. should make changes this year

Lexington Herald-Leader
January 2, 2013

If the good government genie granted us just one wish to fix the dysfunction in Washington and Frankfort, we'd wish for more reason and less political self-interest in congressional and legislative redistricting decisions.

(If the genie offered seconds, we'd wish for Citizens United to be overturned, ushering in real campaign finance reform.)

Whether the new year rang us over the fiscal cliff will be known by the time you read this. Regardless, the fact that Congress ever imposed such a potentially economy-wrecking ultimatum on itself is evidence enough of how wacky the place has become.

Average Americans marvel at the refusal of elected officials to compromise, but the reality is House members were elected from districts that punish compromise and reward extremism.

The practice of creating safe districts, where voters overwhelmingly favor one party over the other, has inevitably created a deeply polarized House. Members fear a primary challenge from the outer wings of their own ranks more than a challenge from the other party, so they pander to the extremes.

The New York Times' Nate Silver calculates that the number of swing districts - those, like Kentucky's 6th, in which a member of either party has a chance of winning - has dwindled over the last 20 years from 103 to 35. That's just 35 swing districts out of a total 435 in the House.

Part of why this has happened is that Americans increasingly live in demographic enclaves of like-minded people, as reported by former Herald-Leader columnist Bill Bishop in his book The Big Sort, subtitled Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.

Many of these clusters are adjacent, however, and could fit into a congressional district. Instead, state legislatures go to extraordinary lengths to compound the clustering effect by creating misshapen districts, such as Kentucky's 1st, a skinny tentacle of which stretches almost the entire southern length of the state.

Interestingly, one goal that has strong bipartisan support is incumbent protection.

In Kentucky, it's been almost three years since lawmakers received Census data showing a state population increase of 300,000 and many changes in where Kentuckians live.

But we still have no new legislative districts. As a result, many Kentuckians, mainly those who live in cities and other population centers, are underrepresented, while rural areas are overrepresented in Frankfort.

Lawmakers took a stab at legislative redistricting in 2012 but both the House and Senate plans were, for good reasons, thrown out by the courts.

Now House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, and incoming Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, are disagreeing over when to make another try.

Stivers wants to wait until 2014, in time for the next legislative elections. He says this would safeguard other priorities, such as state pension reform, from being overshadowed by redistricting.

Stumbo wants to get redistricting out of the way as soon as possible after this year's session begins.

The 2012 session was torpedoed by redistricting, which dragged on for weeks and left widespread animosity among lawmakers.

But waiting until 2014 would risk another round of court challenges, and that could force a repeat of the 2012 fiasco, which could mean no legislative districts based on the 2010 Census until 2016, which would be ridiculous.

That legislative leaders already are arguing over when to redistrict reenforces our view that Kentucky needs a better system.

By the end of last year's fiasco, Gov. Steve Beshear had endorsed reform in which a non-partisan, citizen-based group would be part of the redistricting process. Some lawmakers also were suggesting reforms; they should keep pushing.

If we want legislative bodies able to govern, we must lift this process that's essential to a healthy democracy from the mire of raw political self-interest.