Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

In Georgia, voting for Congress is reduced to a farce

One look at the results of Georgia's 14 congressional races tells you just how dangerously fraudulent the notion of "self-government" has become.

In half of the districts, voters in last week's general election had literally no choice. Because the districts were so heavily gerrymandered in favor of one party or the other, only one name was on the ballot in those seven districts, four of which are held by Republicans and three by Democrats. Voting in those races was like "voting" in the former Soviet Union, where candidates were elected unanimously.

Voting in six of the seven districts that did at least feature two names on the ballot was just as meaningless. The average margin of victory in those six "contested" races was 33 percentage points, compared to a margin in the top statewide races of roughly eight points.  In those races, there was no real debate; no real sense that voters had any power. And there is no fear among incumbents in those districts that they might be held accountable for their votes and actions.

The only election that was worthy of the term occurred in the 12th District, where incumbent Democrat John Barrow lost by 9.5 percentage points to newcomer Rick Allen. And with Barrow's departure, it's doubtful that the heavily Republican 12th will ever be competitive again in its current form.

That's what happens when voters don't pick their politicians, and instead politicians pick their voters. They insulate themselves from competition, ensuring that the only real challenge to their incumbency comes in their party's primary. The process forces conservative politicians to get more conservative, and liberal politicians to get more liberal. Barrow, a conservative Democrat, bucked that dynamic for years until it finally got the best of him.

It's important to note that there are no bad guys in this story, or at least nobody who is worse than anyone else. Georgia Democrats gerrymandered the state when they had the power to do so, just as Republicans are doing now, and members of both parties make maximum use of highly accurate computerized mapping programs wherever state law allows them to do so.

One hundred years ago this year, and for the first time in American history, voters throughout the country were able to vote directly for their state's U.S. senators. Prior to adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators in many states were chosen by state legislators, not voters, until the people insisted that they be allowed to elect their leaders directly rather than through proxies.

Today, it's the House of Representatives whose membership is largely decided by state legislators, with voters serving as little more than rubber stamps for decisions made by those whose primary interest is in protecting the status quo against any who would dare to challenge it. And while we complain about a political system crippled by growing divisiveness, we meekly tolerate an election structure that rewards and even mandates that divisiveness.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.