CHRIS POWELL: Boost political competition: Dissolve congressional districts

Published on Friday, 25 February 2022 20:58
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While the redrawing of congressional districts in other states has become more partisan, anti-democratic, and disgraceful -- as shown by Democrats in New York and Republicans in North Carolina -- Connecticut's mechanisms for redistricting avoid the racket.

In Connecticut redistricting of both congressional and state legislative districts is assigned to a bipartisan legislative commission and any deadlocks are settled by the state Supreme Court, as the court settled the state's new congressional district plan the other day.

This year the legislative commission didn't disagree much on the new congressional districting plan, but Republicans hoped that sending the decision to the court would see the justice of ending the division of Torrington between the 1st Congressional District, centered on the Hartford area, and the 5th, centered on the Waterbury area.

As it turned out, the court wanted to avoid being responsible for big changes and so devised a plan changing district borders only as much as was necessary to achieve equal population. So the "lobster claw" in the current districting map endures, the 1st District grabbing towns in the northwest part of the state and the 5th grabbing Meriden. This map does not serve community of interest so well but doesn't disenfranchise many voters.

Even so, as Quinnipiac University's Fred McKinney noted last month in an essay in Connecticut's Hearst newspapers, the scandal of gerrymandering could be ended easily -- by eliminating congressional districts and electing all members of Congress, not just members of the Senate but members of the House of Representatives as well, on a statewide basis.

This almost surely would make congressional elections more competitive and representative of a state as a whole. Without districts, voters could not be dispersed or concentrated to minimize their impact. Running at large, candidates for the House would have incentive to appeal to a state's full range of interests, not just local ones.

Additionally, formally freed from district lines, political parties could pick better and stronger candidates, drawing from the whole state for every nomination instead of drawing only from a district. Voters would have far more choice for Congress and the option to split their tickets.

Congressional districts are just a tradition, not a requirement of the federal Constitution. Even now members of the House are not required to live in the districts from which they are elected, though many voters may remain parochial and even a candidate who lives just across the street from the district in which he seeks election risks being scorned as a "carpetbagger."

Indeed, while it is not widely known, for many years Connecticut dispensed with congressional districts to some extent or entirely, electing what were called congressmen-at-large.

During Connecticut's early years in the Union, from 1789 to 1837, all its U.S. representatives were elected on a statewide basis. The state also elected all its U.S. representatives on a statewide basis from 1903 to 1913.

Connecticut's older residents may remember that from 1933 to 1965 Connecticut elected at large the sixth member of the U.S. House to which the state then was entitled. This single at-large House election allowed the state to avoid a politically troublesome redrawing of its five remaining districts.

Since those were the days of "balancing" political party slates by ethnicity, both major parties came to reserve their congressman-at-large nominations for candidates of Polish descent. Ticket balancing, an early version of "affirmative action" -- tokenism -- assured both inclusion and exclusion. For from 1933 to 1965 Connecticut almost always had one congressman of Polish descent but never two.

Could Connecticut back then not have survived having [ITALICS] two [END ITALICS] Poles in Congress simultaneously? Since the party leaders of that era have long departed, we may never know, though, thankfully, ethnicity has lost most of its appeal in structuring state tickets today.

While the advantages of at-large congressional elections are clear, the reform isn't likely to be adopted in Connecticut any time soon. For Connecticut is a heavily Democratic state and no majority party has any interest in making elections more competitive.

If this reform is to advance in Connecticut, Republicans will have to advocate it.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Friday, 25 February 2022 20:58. Updated: Friday, 25 February 2022 21:00.