Charlie Mitchell

‘Safe’ voting districts whack marketplace of ideas

Ever hear of John Bouie? How about Cathy Toole? Dennis Quinn? Richard McCluskey?

Those who go to their voting places across Mississippi, depending on where they live, will see those names. They are candidates for Congress. Given different circumstances, these unknowns could have more impact on our daily lives than Donald J. Trump or Hillary R. Clinton.

People can’t be faulted for not realizing Nov. 8 ballots will list more than the nominees for president and vice president. For more than a year, almost 100 percent of the ink and airtime has been laser-focused on the top jobs. Why? Because people love drama and feeding it to them is good for business.

Forgotten is that there would be no Obamacare without Congress. There would have been no billions for Reagan to ramp up defense spending without an allocation from Capitol Hill. How Social Security funds are obtained or expended can’t be changed without the approval of majorities in the House and Senate.

Presidents do have authority to issue executive orders. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have used this tool more than their predecessors, but only to niddle at the edges of congressional actions or inactions with which they did not agree. Obama recently had his hand slapped by the Supreme Court for trying to legislate from the White House.

It’s Congress that has authority over immigration (including whether to build a wall), Medicare, the building of roads and bridges — on and on.

On the stump, Hillary and Trump are sometimes candid enough to say they “plan to” when they talk about tax cuts and increases. At other times, they talk about what they “will do,” which is misleading. Not to underestimate the grants of authority given by Congress to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture and others, the power of the purse is held by Congress.

All 435 seats in the U.S. House are up for election, as they are every two years. Bouie, Toole, Quinn and McCluskey are among 12 challengers to the state’s current delegates — Trent Kelly, Bennie Thompson, Greg Harper and Steven Palazzo, but no challenger will win. All the incumbents will be re-elected, and with little to no fanfare. Bouie, Toole, Quinn, McCluskey and the others don’t have a chance.

How can such a bold prediction be made? Well, factually. Only about 20 House seats are competitive nationally and six of those are competitive only because there is no incumbent. Mathematically, there is no way the Democratic Party will regain control of the House because too few Republicans are vulnerable. In the Senate, only nine of 34 contests are competitive, meaning it’s possible for Democrats to gain a majority. There’s no Senate race in Mississippi this year.

The looming question is how the nation got to the point where so many House and Senate seats are completely predicable, where the incumbent can be assured re-election cycle after cycle. There are several factors. Name recognition is one. The amount of campaign cash incumbents receive from interest groups is another. Stupidly early filing deadlines are part of the picture as is the aforementioned media preference to cover one person (a president) rather than 535. Congress plods. It always has. Presidents swashbuckle.

The big reason — the systemic reason — why so few incumbents face serious challenges traces to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congress moved to put a stop to creating districts where no minority candidate could hope to be elected. That was noble, but it started a stream of gerrymandering that has grown into a river. Drawing lines to ramp up minority voting districts had the effect of concentrating white voters, too. In Mississippi, Bennie Thompson, a Democrat, represents the Delta and doesn’t need a single white vote. The others, all Republicans, represent mostly white districts and don’t need a single black vote.

Ideology has followed close on the heels of race and majorities in each state, whether liberal or conservative, have worked endlessly and artfully to carve out voter maps to magnify their advantage.

So we have a nation of mostly safe districts, which translates into very little conversation, very little competition, very few new ideas.

Other people have noticed the trend. A suggestion is to have a neutral panel empowered to draw district lines to create contests where diverse candidates would have to compete in the marketplace of ideas.

Not a bad idea. What would it require?

Approval of Congress.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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