11/28/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

The Island States of America: A Threat to Our Representative Democracy

The secessionists have garnered a lot of attention lately with their petitions to leave the union after Barack Obama won the national election. While their appeals may be headline-grabbing and fabulous fodder for talk radio and cable TV, they are substantively and politically unimportant and impotent.

The issues of true significance for the future of our representative democracy are (1) the structure of our federal congressional districts and the Senate and House districts within the states; and (2) the rules for voting in primaries within each state. We examine why and what needs to be done to address these problems later in this blog.

First, let us dispense with the secessionists. These folks are what we refer to as the looney tunes fringe of the electorate. They have a right to their own opinion and we would like to see them have rights as individuals clustered together to secede from the United States.

John Donne said, "No man is an island, entire of itself." Nonetheless, we say grant the men, and the few women (Neil Caren's research shows that these petition signers which numbered approximately 300,000 as of Nov. 16 , were disproportionately male) that are part of this nascent secessionist movement, individual island state status.

Then, take away, all of the privileges and benefits which derive from being part of the United States of America. These would include: the use of highways subsidized by federal funds, assistance from the National Guard, defense by our nation's military, access to national parks, emergency management and medical services, educational assistance, social security, and Medicare.

We could call these new free floating entities "barrier island states" or the independent island states. Based upon the initial surge of petitioners, the largest of these new states would be located in Texas with 100,000 signers and the following six states that had 25,000 signers or more: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas.

It's not these artificial island states that we have just invented that threaten our representative democracy, however. It is those individual island states that have been legitimately constructed that put it at risk. Those island states are the federal congressional districts and the senate and house districts in the majority of our states.

Because of gerrymandering these districts are insular and polarizing by design. The districts are also designed to protect those in office. As Paul Kane noted in his Washington Post column on the day after the national elections, "Many incumbents survived because of a redistricting process that left a record low number of competitive seats, cloistering Republicans and Democrats together into geographically odd -- but politically homogenous districts." If you can't change the butts in seats, it becomes very difficult to change behavior.

Both parties are very good at gerrymandering, the Republicans excel at it. Here's some evidence:

  • At the national level, there are 435 congressional districts. In this most recent election, 241 leaned toward Republicans. One hundred ninety four leaned Democratic.
  • The Democrats won the presidency and United States Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Virginia and Florida. The breakout of the house winners in those same states follows. Pennsylvania: Republicans, 13 seats. Democrats, five seats. Ohio: Republicans, 12 seats. Democrats, four seats. Wisconsin: Republicans, five seats. Democrats, three seats. Virginia: Republicans, eight seats. Democrats, three seats. Florida: Republicans, 17 seats. Democrats, 10 seats.
  • At the state level, in January 2013, over two-thirds of the states will be under single-party control of both the executive and legislative branches: 24 states will be Republican and 14 will be Democratic.

No matter which party or candidate wins as a result of the gerrymandering process, the losers are the potential for bi-partisanship and compromise. This problem is compounded by the primary systems in many states which preclude participation by independents and nonpartisans unless they declare as a Republican or Democrat.

According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, in this national election year 38 percent of voters indicated they were independents compared to 32 percent who declared as Democrats and 24 percent as Republicans. Excluding this large and growing group of voters -- who tend to be more centrist and moderate in their positions -- from the candidate selection processes means that they tend to be controlled by the fringes (think "tea party or conservative" on the right and "liberal or progressive" on the left.)

Many of the district island states are controlled by a small group of islanders. They are like-minded folks who pick representatives who resemble them to do their bidding. As we noted in a Huffington Post blog earlier this year: "While many of our politicians have been criticized because of their confrontational and contentious nature, they are not independent agents. To a greater or lesser extent, they are mirrors reflecting the highly partisan values of the voters who select and elect them."

We need to break up the island states and their stranglehold on our political process. There are a number of actions that can be taken to accomplish this. The two key ones are:

  • Implementation of a fair districting approach within each state controlled by a nonpartisan independent commission as opposed to politicians.
  • Primary reform to ensure processes and systems that are fully inclusive of the registered voter population rather those that are restrictive and exclusive.

In the most recent election cycle, California and Florida provided positive examples of how changing the districting and primary approaches can produce different outcomes.

California went from a party primary system to one in which the two candidates with the most votes in an "open congressional primary" moved on to the general election. This resulted, as Juan William reported, in seven incumbents losing their seats "as they ran in more diverse districts -- in which candidates had to appeal to more diverse neighborhoods and political groups." Williams continued to comment, "The bottom line is that voters have more choice among candidates competing for the middle ground, not to be a champion of one political extreme."

Florida was redistricted by the state legislature according to guidelines set out in a constitutional amendment that banned "gerrymandering" that was passed by the state's citizens with over 62 percent of the votes casts. The redistricting helped the Democrats pick up four congressional seats and seven seats in the state legislature.

In conclusion, if we want our democracy to work and to represent the interests of all the people and not those at either extreme, we need to succeed and not to secede. To succeed, we need to renew and reform our electoral processes to put the emphasis on the United States of America instead of the Island States of America.

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