Beyond the headlines lies the story of a region hard hit by the recession, with sustained high unemployment rates and massive state budget deficits. Add slowing population growth leading to a loss of representation in Congress as shown by the recent rollout of U.S. census figures, and we have a set of mighty hurdles to overcome.
These realities present real threats. They also create unique opportunities. Yes, Midwesterners could wind up fighting each other and be left more divided than ever. Or, we can begin the process of facing our challenges with an honest, open, civil discourse between the people and our elected leaders.
One way to start this conversation -- and help rebuild trust between the people and elected officials -- is to have a meaningful exchange around a cornerstone of our democracy: the drawing of electoral lines, a process known as redistricting.
Most states put the power to draw district lines for Congress members and state legislators solely in the hands of the state legislature. This power has historically been abused for political gain by whichever party happens to have more sway during the few months every 10 years when districts are drawn. The result is manipulated lines and manipulated voters as elected officials effectively "choose" their constituents -- rather than the other way around.
If we can lift the veil of secrecy that typically enshrouds the redistricting process, we can kick-start a more meaningful dialogue.
That is why an alliance of 27 civic engagement organizations that make up the Midwest Democracy Network launched the "Draw the Line" campaign to push for increased public participation, true transparency and protection of minority voting rights in the creation of new political maps. Our aim: ensure communities have a strong voice in this critical process.
Coalitions in each state are asking elected officials to promote and participate in a real conversation with the people they represent about how districts are drawn in 2011 and 2012. Four of the top recommendations from our state coalitions include:
Because most states do not provide these resources already, the Draw the Line campaign provides tools to facilitate the public's engagement with this process, from educational materials developed by the Brennan Center for Justice to the Public Mapping Project's District Builder web-based map-drawing software developed by a George Mason University/Harvard University partnership. These resources and more are easily accessed at www.drawthelinemidwest.org.
Now more than ever we need elected officials responsive -- and courageous -- enough to transform urgent challenges into opportunities. The redistricting process presents us with a chance to restore to politics a sense of community and place that creates a more open, honest and civil dialogue between the people and our elected officials. We ask legislators, redistricting officials and members of the public to draw the line and start this conversation with redistricting.