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Joe Hallett: Author has crazy idea that competitive elections are bad


November 17. 2013 11:51PM
By Joe Hallett The Columbus Dispatch (MCT)

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Competitive elections are bad!


Who in the Wide, Wide World of Politics could believe that?


OK, maybe a monarch. Or a Third World dictator. Or an incumbent lawmaker.


But an associate dean of political science at the University of Texas in Dallas?


Meet Tom Brunell, author of the book: “Redistricting and Representation: Why Competitive Elections are Bad for America.”


“I’m one of the few people in the country who don’t believe we need more competition,” Brunell said.


No duh. Still, he was invited to testify Thursday at the Statehouse before a committee of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission, whose 32 members are charged with making recommendations on revising the state Constitution.


The committee is holding hearings on what should be done to reform Ohio’s decennial process of drawing legislative and congressional districts. Too many of the districts’ representatives are ideologues who won’t compromise but face no consequences, because their districts are drawn so they can’t lose. Their only threat is from an even-more-extreme challenger in a partisan primary election — in which, typically, only about 5 percent of a district’s residents participate.


“Redistricting reform, if done correctly, can be the most important reform to the Constitution in generations, because it has the potential to fix a broken democracy,” Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted told the committee.


Husted and other thoughtful reformers believe congressional and legislative districts should be made as compact and competitive as possible, keeping counties and municipalities intact to preserve so-called “communities of interest.”


Not Brunell. He has no problem with wildly constructed districts such as the slivered 9th Congressional District that hugs the Lake Erie shoreline from Toledo to Cleveland. Rather than keep voters together by geography, Brunell prefers lumping them by ideology. In other words, it’s OK to create a district laden with conservatives and another with liberals.


“I’m in favor of drawing districts as ugly as you have to in order to make them more ideologically homogeneous,” he told the committee.


That way, there will be fewer voters unhappy with the election results. In a competitive district, if the winner takes 51 percent of the vote, that means 49 percent of the voters will be unhappy losers, and the winner won’t feel an obligation to represent them, Brunell said.


“I don’t think competitive districts increase responsiveness. A representative of Congress will try to please 51 percent, and this is not representative.”


State Sen. Charleta Tavares, a Columbus Democrat, seemed incredulous when she heard this. Tavares reasoned that the tension of a competitive district forces a lawmaker to work with both sides, not just appease a narrow constituency that holds sway in partisan primaries over who is elected.


“Competition is good in my mind because it keeps us on our toes and it allows the public to have a say in what we’re doing and not allow us to do just what we want to do,” Tavares said.


Catherine Turcer, policy analyst for Common Cause Ohio, listened to Brunell’s testimony skeptically: “He highly values partisan politics and he highly values minimizing voters’ regrets — people feeling bad about who they voted for. But what voters care about is good and effective government. A competitive election is important because we can hold an elected official accountable.


“Voters expect to go to the polls and not have the election predetermined in November.”


Brunell said he considers himself a moderate Republican. Good luck getting his views represented in Texas without competitive elections.




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