In this well-documented year of voter unrest, with pundits predicting a sea change of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives if not the Senate, how many House seats are really in play? Try about 50 out of 435. Even in a year when the overriding sentiment in America seems to be throw the bums out, at best around 50 bums will leave office while 385 sail to re-election.
One potential solution to breaking the stranglehold of a seemingly remote political class is to term-limit them out of office. There are pros and cons on both sides of the term limits issue but the reality is its a political non-starter: Congress is not going to term-limit itself and individual states are not likely to singly put their representatives at a disadvantage.
Another, more achievable, way to lessen the number of congressmen-for-life is to make more districts competitive by redistricting in a non-partisan way. Voters should not put up with a status quo that results in non-competitive races in election after election. The 8th Congressional District, of which Alexandria is part, was a competitive seat prior to redistricting based on the 1990 census. After the census, the Democratic-controlled Virginia General Assembly shifted the boundaries of the 8th District and also combined the districts held by two Republicans, Frank Wolf and George Allen, into the 10th District.
These changes turned Virginias 8th into a non-competitive Democratic seat and the 10th into a safer Republican seat. Democrat Jim Moran has held the 8th District seat since then, winning re-election for the 10th time by 37 percentage points in 2008. Republican Congressman Frank Wolf has held the 10th district seat since 1981, and won re-election in 2008 by 20 percentage points.
Once every 10 years, states have an opportunity to get rid of gerrymandering, which results in districts like the 8th; this district stretches all the way to Reston. An opportunity to fix this district looms, as redistricting is about to occur based on 2010 Census data.
Common sense tells us if two adjacent districts, one a safe Republican seat and one a safe Democrat one, were drawn with geography not politics in mind, the result would be two competitive districts. Voters benefit when each party has a chance to win, as politicians have to be responsive to prevail. In a safe seat, a congressman is free to be intractable.
It takes a great deal of political will and active citizen engagement to move to non-partisan redistricting, but it can be done. Arizona and Iowa, a red-leaning state and the other blue, respectively, have implemented redistricting based on non-partisan commissions. The efforts were supported by both the New York Times and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Can non-partisan redistricting be done in Virginia? Clearly not by the politically driven General Assembly alone. To affect non-partisan redistricting, a proposal for a constitutional amendment creating an independent commission would need to be placed on the ballot in time for the 2011 state election, and, of course, voters would have to approve.
Though there are long odds against such an endeavor, if the end result would make Virginias congressional districts more competitive, and thus result in more frequent turnover in Congress, its a change worth pursuing.