Power, sadly, often responds only to power.
That’s the reality of the redistricting process in which the Indiana General Assembly now is engaged.
Advocates for responsible and responsive government made many creative suggestions. They have called for lawmakers to establish a process that allows citizens to submit maps of legislative districts that accurately represent Indiana and its people. The idea aims to be a win-win: Voters feel more ownership over the political process and legislators get the benefit of free labor and ingenuity.
The lawmakers’ response—at least that of the Republicans who form supermajorities in both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly—has been to pat the good-government types who came up with the idea on the head and send them off to bed.
Those same good-government types have called for the process to be transparent. They have asked—politely, deferentially—the legislators to commit to a series of public hearings on redistricting at places and times convenient for citizens to attend.
The lawmakers—or, again, at least the Republicans who own supermajorities—have refused to make even that modest commitment.
That’s because they don’t have to.
“The problem is that the supermajority doesn’t have to listen,” Common Cause of Indiana Policy Director Julia Vaughn said. “It’s really frightening to think that they’ve set out a timeline that would provide no additional public (statewide) hearings and very little time for people to evaluate the maps that they’re now going behind closed doors to draw.”
She’s right on all counts, but that’s the reality.
The members of the Republican Party who hold supermajorities don’t feel any debt or obligation to the public.
That’s one of the dangers of gerrymandering—the dark science of drawing legislative maps so they unfairly and inaccurately favor one party over another. Politicians who end up wielding power no longer feel that they draw that power from the people they’re supposed to represent.
Instead, they feel beholden to the system that keeps them entrenched in office. They feel responsible to other members of their party.
But to no one else.
That is what makes gerrymandering such a pernicious practice. Because it seals public officials off from the public they are supposed to serve, it undermines confidence in the process of self-government among citizens and encourages unchecked arrogance among the elected.
That’s because those elected officials come to think of their seats as things that belong to them rather than positions of trust they must earn.
But the problem is that, with the advances in map-drawing technology, a gerrymandered legislature can become a self-perpetuating thing.
The reason the GOP has supermajorities in both chambers is that Republicans were able to draw the maps with surgical precision 10 years ago. They created districts that protected Republicans and stuffed Democrats into as few slots as possible.
That gave the GOP the power to govern much of the time behind closed doors.
Because Democrats no longer have enough power even to call for a bathroom break without Republican permission, most of the truly important debates over policy questions now take place in caucus. That means they are out of public sight, away from the eyes and ears of the people from whom lawmakers in a democratic republic are supposed to draw their authority to govern.
Advocates for good government have made persuasive, reasonable and responsible arguments for opening up the redistricting process and making it more responsive to the public. They argue, accurately, doing so will restore faith in government and thus make government more effective.
But this is not a moment when sweet reason is likely to carry the day.
The fact is that gerrymandering has given Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly almost unchecked power. They don’t feel like surrendering any of it, regardless of how just and respectful the requests are that they should do so.
They are not going to listen to arguments in favor of responsible redistricting and good government.
Because they don’t have to.
They have the power in this process.
And power, sadly, often responds only to power.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.