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Editorial: Insiders knock democracy off the ballot

The U.S. Capitol WashingtD.C.  |  Getty Images file photo

The U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. | Getty Images file photo

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:35AM

The U.S. Supreme Court follows the election returns, early Chicago columnist Finley Peter Dunne told us, even though it’s not supposed to.

Too bad the U.S. House of Representatives doesn’t do so as well.

In Tuesday’s elections, Democratic con­gressional candidates did as well or better nationwide than their Republican counterparts in the overall vote, but the Republicans will wind up with firm control of the chamber, largely because of gerrymandering.

That’s not democracy in action. We wonder what Dunne’s character, Mr. Dooley, would have to say about it.

Democratic congressional candidates got 53,952,240 votes nationwide compared with 53,402,643 for Republicans, a margin of about half a million votes, according to the ThinkProgress website. The totals don’t include districts where candidates ran unopposed, and they could be skewed by districts where competitive races brought out extra voters.

But according to an Associated Press tally, the GOP will have at least 233 seats compared with 193 for the Democrats.

Eight districts remained too close to call Friday, but even if the Democrats pick up all seven where they are leading, they won’t come close to a majority.

Those results are disturbing, especially because Congress is viewed in some quarters as more polarized than at any time since the end of the Civil War. If the electorate decided it wants the country to head in one direction, we’d hate to see a U.S. House go the other way as a result of political gamesmanship.

After the 2010 Census, which required a redrawing of congressional districts, Republicans controlled the process in more states than Democrats did, giving their party an overall edge in Tuesday’s vote. In Illinois, Democrats controlled the process and drew a map as favorable to their party as they could make it.

Gerrymandering is a political tradition older than the republic. As long ago as 1732, the governor of North Carolina was accused of redrawing districts to “prepossess People in a future election according to his desire.”

The problem is that powerful computers and huge data banks have made gerrymandering so effective that politicians can pinpoint down to the precinct who is likely to vote Republican or Democratic even without looking at voter lists. It makes it easier to skew results.

“It’s insanely precise,” says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Ideally, Morrison says, a state’s congressional delegation should mirror the priorities of the voters, not simply those of politicians who drew the boundaries for voting districts. Similarly, after a national vote, the U.S. House should reflect the priorities of the American people.

Some states, including Iowa and Florida, have instituted reforms to stop disenfranchising voters through gerrymandering. The rest of the states should follow their lead.

The purpose of a democracy is to let voters choose their politicians, not to let politicians choose their voters.

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