In praise of Iowa: (The Economist, 17/10/02)

American politics

In praise of Iowa Oct 17th 2002  From The Economist print edition

 The only democratic part of the United States

THIS newspaper has doubts about Iowa. It is too empty. And every four
years presidential candidates file to its caucuses to be blackmailed by
dour farmers into supporting their ethanol subsidy—as foul a piece of
political pork as you will find. It is no great surprise that this
year's monstrous farm bill was largely the work of Senator Tom Harkin of

Yet, in one respect, Iowa towers above the rest of America like a silo
above the cornfields: democracy. This year, America should be set for a
close election. The Republicans have an 11-seat advantage in the House,
the Democrats a precarious one-seat advantage in the Senate, and there
are plenty of governorships up for grabs. The polls showed the Democrats
ahead in the summer, when the economy was the main subject; now, thanks
to Iraq, the Republicans are just in front.

And how will this “50:50 country” emerge at the hustings? There will
indeed be close races in the statewide contests—ie, those for the Senate
and the governors' mansions. But in the biggest forum of American
democracy—the House of Representatives—no more than 20 of the 435 races
look competitive. In any other evenly divided country's lower house, one
in every five members of parliament, deputies or assemblymen would be a
nervous wreck by this stage; in America, only one in 20 congressmen
needs to think about an alternative career.

The reason is redistricting, the rejigging of district boundaries to
take account of demographic changes. In most countries, this is done by
independent bureaucrats. In virtually every American state it is done by
state politicians—and, boy, does it show. The parties “gerrymander”
districts to cram supporters into absurdly shaped districts: doughnuts,
embryos, crabs, Rorschach tests.

Usually, the ruling party cheats. In Florida, which the latest
presidential election indicated was an evenly divided state, the ruling
Republicans have produced 17 Republican seats and eight Democratic ones.
More often, the two parties cut deals to protect incumbents. Ten of the
Florida seats are so safe that the candidates are running unopposed. The
only competitive seat in the whole of California is that occupied by the
disgraced Gary Condit, who is now retiring.

The law does nothing to stop this. Indeed, the Voting Rights Act, which
encourages majority-minority districts, provides an excellent excuse for
cheating. Illinois's bizarre sandwich-like fourth district, which
consists of two unconnected slivers, exists purely to gather up
Democratic Latinos. And new software is allowing the parties to be even
more precise about their cheating. Given all the other advantages that
incumbents have, in terms of name-recognition, money-raising powers and
the ability (like Mr Harkin) to bring home pork, this makes for a
travesty of democracy.

There are coincidental exceptions to this rule: seven states are so
sparsely populated that they have only one House seat each. Five other
states have bipartisan commissions, sometimes with a neutral
tie-breaker. But the noblest exception is Iowa: it has handed
redistricting over to an independent bureau that is not allowed to take
political considerations such as voting patterns and party registration
into account when drawing boundaries. As a result, four of its five
seats have competitive races—more than California, New York, Texas and
Illinois combined can muster. The citizens of Arizona recently voted by
referendum to adopt a similar system to Iowa's.

No method of redistricting is perfect, but the Iowan way is better than
the rest. Forget the jokes about silos. Maybe it is time to tow the
Statue of Liberty to Des Moines.

Marc A. Schindler
Spruce Grove, Alberta, Canada -- Gateway to the Boreal Parkland

“We do not think that there is an incompatibility between words and
deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences
have been properly debated…To think of the future and wait was merely
another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just
an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a
question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.”
– Pericles about his fellow-Athenians, as quoted by Thucydides in “The
Peloponessian Wars”

Note: This communication represents the informal personal views of the
author solely; its contents do not necessarily reflect those of the
author’s employer, nor those of any organization with which the author
may be associated.

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