A big reform idea people love and politicians hate
It’s a given that South Carolina’s Statehouse politics is dysfunctional on a good day and thoroughly corrupt on most days.
An idea that has surfaced may be the single biggest thing we can do to reform this broken system — and it’s getting some traction.
The big reform idea is an independent reapportionment commission that would draw the lines for legislative districts.
OK, I can hear the yawns and mumbles: “What kind of arcane policy wonk stuff is he talking about now?” I get it.
It sounds dull and obtuse, but it’s really important. Bear with me on this one and you’ll see why.
People move around, so districts grow and shrink and the lines have to be redrawn every 10 years so they have roughly the same number of people.
This is a big deal because how these districts are drawn determines (more or less) who gets elected and re-elected.
It works like this: The members of the Legislature look at the district lines and based on past election returns and new census data they can pretty much figure out where the Democratic and Republican voters are. They then draw the lines so they get a “safe district.”
Naturally, they draw lines that will make all their buddies, the incumbents, safe. They eliminate contested districts where they may be threatened.
It’s a glorious collusion among politicians in an exercise of bipartisan self-preservation. It has the effect of preserving the good-old-boy system of status quo politics.
These ultra-safe districts lead to special-interest corruption and a dysfunctional system.
In South Carolina, 80-90 percent of districts are safe for the Democratic or Republican incumbent. If the incumbent is safe, they really don’t have to pay much attention to the voters. They just pay attention to the lobbyists and political action committees they rely on for campaign contributions.
Comparatively little money comes from people in the district back home. Many incumbents get 70-80 percent of their contributions from these Statehouse political insiders. They build up huge campaign war chests that discourage potential candidates from running against them.
Thus, the golden rule of politics: He who pays the money makes the rules.
It’s all a vicious cycle.
An independent reapportionment commission would take the power to draw the lines out of the hands of the Legislature. Its priority would not be to protect incumbents, but to draw competitive districts.
So, you ask, why would any incumbent politician ever agree to this independent commission?
It’s unclear exactly why, but it is happening. The same thing happened with term limits a few years back and today 15 states have some form of term limits. It seems that when things get really, really bad and people get really, really fed up with abuse and corruption, real change is possible.
This may be what is happening now.
There are several ways an independent commission can work. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, 13 states have a commission with primary responsibility for drawing a plan for legislative districts. Five states have an advisory commission that may assist the legislature with drawing district lines and five states have a backup commission that will make the decision if the legislature is unable to agree. Iowa has a different redistricting system that has the same effect as an independent commission.
In South Carolina, the chairmen of the state Democratic and Republican parties are on record favoring an independent commission. The League of Women Voters has been doing great work on this for years and it’s starting to pay off.
Just this month, several bills are being discussed or introduced to amend our state constitution to create this type of commission and let the voters, not the politicians, decide on district lines.
A recent Winthrop Poll shows the people clearly want this, as 63 percent said they support the idea of an independent commission.
Will it happen? Who knows? We are still in early days on this issue. The Census is held every 10 years and the next one will be in 2020. So there is time to get this done.
Ask your legislator where they stand on this. And don’t accept a politician’s answer. It’s like asking someone if they have been faithful to their spouse. There are only two answers: yes and everything else.
This really is a big deal.
If we can change the way legislators are elected, then maybe, just maybe, we’ll have a shot at fixing the broken and corrupt politics holding us back.
While I breathe, I hope.
Phil Noble is from Charleston, where he runs a technology firm. He is co-founder of EnvisionSC and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.