Saturday, November 5, 2016

Gerrymandering Wyoming-What to do about it

Wyoming’s system for electing state legislators means voters don’t know who represents them because county lines don’t determine their representation. Instead districts are carved out of pieces of multiple counties. The majority party draws those lines and the results favor them.

There are three fixes. One, county lines should matter. Legislators should be elected to represent counties. Second, candidates should run at-large within a given county rather than in districts. Third, the ballot should focus on the qualifications of candidates, not their party affiliation.

If legislators were elected to serve entire counties, there are at least two alternatives. First, the size of the legislature could be increased. Alternatively, the legislature could reduce the number of counties.

Consider New Hampshire where voters elect 400 people to their House of Representatives. Each member represents about 3,000 citizens. That is democracy.
This approach apportions legislative seats according to the population of the smallest county, i.e. Niobrara. Its population is 2,484. Calculate that number with the ten percent disparity courts would likely approve and the base becomes 2,732.

If each member represented 2,732 people, there’d be about 200 members of the House of Representatives, about half the size of New Hampshire’s and roughly equal to Pennsylvania’s.  Interestingly, there are 29 states with more than a hundred house members. Nine exceed 150.

Such a system would enhance public interest in seeking the office. A larger house allows a greater range of occupations and interests to be represented. There would be fairer representation of women and minorities among the “butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers” seeking office. More candidates would give the voters more choices, lessening the influence of incumbency and opening the door to a turnover in fresh new faces.

Importantly a larger house would severely dilute the influence of lobbyists. Today lobbyists can kill a bill in committee by corralling as few as five House members or three Senators. Suddenly a lobbyist’s life would become much harder with committees of more than 20 members and the requirement to get 101 votes on the floor. That would be a good thing, allowing for more legislator decision-making and less outside influence.

Yes, it would be messier. Debates would be longer. Outcomes would be less predictable. But the legislative process should be messier, less predictable, more deliberative, and slower to act. Fewer bills would be enacted, but who would complain about that?

The other option is to reduce the number of counties. County lines were not carved in stone tablets. Wyoming started with just five, a number that gradually increased to today’s 23. County government costs taxpayers much more per capita in the smaller counties. Niobrara’s 2,484 citizens have to pay the salaries of the same number of county officials as the 90,000 Laramie County taxpayers.

If a county is too small to have a legislator, it is too small to have county commissioners, a sheriff, assessor, and a treasurer. Fewer counties would be more fiscally responsible while allowing legislators to be elected by voters of a single county.

Next, candidates should run at-large. All legislators within a county should be elected to represent that entire county as it was before the 1991 court decision. No county should be denied a legislator as some are today. It’s also nonsense to argue, for example, that a legislator who lives in east Cheyenne cannot represent the interests of people in south Cheyenne. This reform would eliminate Gerrymandering altogether.

Third, eliminate partisan labels on the ballot. Politicians in both parties are fond of saying how little a role partisanship plays in Wyoming’s government. So then why use the label when running for office? If candidates’ names appeared on a ballot without identifying them as a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or whatever, the voters would be far more engaged in learning about each candidate. Elections would have more to do with qualifications than with party identification. That would be a good thing.

The current system hasn’t produced better government. Let’s have a dialogue about how to effectively reform it.

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