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The rigged game of redistricting

By John Avlon, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Redrawing political district lines being debated across the country
  • Two New York politicians hired lobbyists to influence redistricting
  • At least 15 states have citizens groups fighting for redistricting reform
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Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

(CNN) -- Across the country, state legislatures are debating redistricting right now. It's a once-a-decade proposition: the opportunity and obligation to redraw political district lines to reflect the latest census.

The problem is that the system is rigged -- politicians choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their politicians. The result is the rise of "safe seats" designed to drive the real election away from the all access general election to low-turnout, closed partisan primaries. It amounts to an end-run around democracy.

The bottom line is this: If you're frustrated with the bitter polarization afflicting American politics, you should be pushing for redistricting reform right now.

Redistricting -- also known as "Gerrymandering" (the title of a great documentary of on the subject ) -- has a long and sordid history in America, but lately it has gotten much worse. There was the infamous Tom DeLay-driven, mid-decade Texas redistricting that was designed to drive Democrats out of office. But it's a bipartisan problem: In 2005, the influential Democratic Speaker of the Massachusetts State House Tom Finneran plead guilty to obstruction of justice after accusations that he manipulated redistricting efforts.

The ethical swamp still hasn't been drained and shamelessly trying to manipulate the process is considered business as usual. Earlier this year, Politico's Maggie Haberman reported that two New York Democratic Congressmen --Joe Crowley and Brian Higgins --had already hired lobbyists to look after their interests in the current round of redistricting.

This is pathetic, but far from unprecedented. In 2001, Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez told the Orange County Register, "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. ... I spend $2 million (campaigning) every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000 and (lobbyist Michael Berman) will draw the district they can win in. Those who have refused to pay? God help them."

This kind of cronyism and collusion definitely isn't democracy as the founding fathers imagined.

Redistricting reform has been gaining momentum in recent years despite strenuous opposition from the partisan establishment. In 2008, California voters overwhelmingly approved an independent citizens redistricting commission after the two parties blocked an effort led by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 to remove lawmakers from the drawing of districts.

In 2010, Florida voters passed a ballot referendum that would require the state legislators to put forward a plan that does not favor one party or the other. But the Sunshine state redistricting appears to be on a rocky and partisan a path.

In 2010, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch led a group called New York Uprising to get Empire State politicians to pledge support for independent redistricting. The reform message gained urgency because of a spate of Albany scandals. Now, two-thirds of New Yorkers believe that a nonpartisan redistricting system should be put in place -- with margins equally high among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

But signing the pledge has proven easier than actually taking action, as the Republican-controlled State Senate has attempted to weasel out of the deal, kicking the can down the road for another 10 years. In response, a citizens reform group known as ReShape New York has been formed (I serve on its advisory board) to push for follow-through, because delay is denial when it comes to redistricting reform.

In all, there are at least 15 states where citizens groups are fighting for redistricting reform this spring, according to the website BallotNews. In the Midwest, a coalition called "Draw the Line Midwest" is organizing redistricting reform efforts in Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

In other states with bipartisan redistricting plans -- like New Jersey and Utah -- independent voters are not represented in the commissions, ignoring the interests of a plurality of voters who are most committed to the principles of nonpartisanship. This can lead to a form of collusion sometimes called "sweetheart redistricting" because it protects incumbents from both parties.

Professional partisans cynically dismiss redistricting reform as an issue Main Street voters don't know or don't care about. It is an excuse for inaction, fueled by self-interest. They like the system as it is because incumbents benefit from a lack of competitive general elections. It's just our democracy that suffers.

Consider that the average turnout for closed partisan primaries is 12% -- that means 6.1% of the electorate makes a majority. It is a paradise for activists, ideologues and special interests -- but it leaves average citizens essentially disenfranchised.

At the same time, it creates an incentive for members of Congress to pander to the special interests of their party instead of reaching out to the center and winning over the reasonable edge of the opposition to form new coalitions and actually solve problems. The hyper-partisan status quo leads to gridlock and encourages polarization.

So if you're among the 93% of Americans who believe that there is too much partisan infighting in Washington, understand that the rigged system of redistricting is at the root of the dysfunction. Redistricting reform is an essential part of the cure.

And the time is now -- decisions about redistricting are being made in state capitals across the country this spring and summer. Politicians are hoping that citizens will forget their campaign promises and they can quietly re-impose the self-dealing status quo. If we let this moment pass, it will be another decade before redistricting reform has a chance at being implemented. The ugliness and incivility of our politics will get only worse in the interim.

Redistricting reform matters. Along with open primaries, the competitive general elections it would create could heal the harsh, artificial polarization of American politics. It is the reform that could guarantee all others -- empowering the vast vital center instead of the extremes.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.