THE BLOG
10/31/2014 12:58 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2014

Defending Real Democracy, Starting in New York

For all the manufactured "Republican versus Democrat" drama that dominates today's cable news and political rhetoric, the most striking feature of our present-day democracy is not partisan divide -- it's a corrupt system that protects incumbents from the consequences that real democracy brings.

Around the nation, lawmakers have drawn up their districts with such perverse precision and aversion to competition, that legislators rarely face competitive challenges. What's historically been referred to as "gerrymandering" can more aptly be labeled an incumbent protection program.

Even though only two out of 10 Americans approve of Congress, in 2012 nine out of 10 incumbents won re-election, thanks largely to gerrymandering. Americans hate Congress but can't help ourselves from re-electing its members over and over again.

This is more than a good government issue: when elected officials don't fear getting a real challenge from those who may be on an opposite end of the ideological spectrum, they mindlessly dig into their own ideology. As both Democrats and Republicans do so, it makes any substantial action impossible to achieve.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Washington D.C.

In our nation's capital and beyond, gerrymandering has impeded progress on solving major national problems. From raising the minimum wage to passing immigration reform to addressing climate change, incumbency addiction is a habit that's left our democracy paralyzed.

In New York State, we are frighteningly close to approving a sneaky ballot measure that enshrines some of the worst elements of gerrymandering in our state constitution. Proposition 1, which will be on ballots on November 4, would not improve the broken status-quo in any significant manner. Instead, it would actually codify it.

The measure would allow legislators to have direct influence over their district lines (legislators choosing their voters, instead of the other way around!); insert partisan provisions that change rules depending on which party is in control (giving Republicans alternating with Democrats veto power); prevent map drawers from shifting current (broken) district lines in any significant manner; and ignore the principle of keeping "communities of common interest" together, instead of cracking them for electoral purposes.

Perhaps most disturbingly, Prop 1 would do nothing to address the problem of prison-based gerrymandering, which allows lawmakers in rural districts to count prisoners as their residents and not the communities to which the inmates belong. This artificially, and undemocratically, expands the influence of rural district while denying fair representation to urban, largely minority communities.

Moreover, the same incumbent protection program that facilities the re-election of one do-nothing Congress after another also permeates our state legislature, and Prop 1 would make it even worse.

If we think that broken government is a real problem, we must take the process of electing such government seriously. Instead of cementing a flawed system into our constitution, we should pursue a redistricting system that is truly independent. In New York, we can start by saying No to Proposition 1 and going back to the drawing board for real reform.