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Can political questions ever not be political?

Orrin J. H. Johnson
Orrin J. H. Johnson
Nevada Legislature building

There is an expression of frustration that most decent, civically minded citizens of our nation have uttered at least once – “Why can’t these [expletive of choice] politicians just stop bickering and do what’s best for the country/state/city?”

I’ve had the thought. Most people reading this have as well, I am certain. But of course, the problem is that we elect people who disagree in good faith on what’s “best” for everyone, and proposed solutions are often mutually exclusive. And, of course, we must factor in the minority of people from both parties who don’t give a fig about acting in good faith as long as they can use their power to consolidate even more power for themselves. Our mechanisms of government are designed to be slow and prone to being stymied, even by minority blocs, because individual liberty is protected by republics that give political forces free rein to attempt to thwart one another.

It’s messy, but it beats the alternatives hands down.

Periodically, there is an attempt to pretend that politics is not political, and to create mythically independent and non-partisan government entities to make some policy or another. This is not only a fantasy, but a potentially dangerous one. 

The latest such effort involves an initiative petition that would take the redistricting process out of the hands of our Legislature (but not necessarily out of the hands of legislative leadership), and vest that process in an independent commission that supposedly will have no political dog in the fight. The commission will be ordered to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries such that they are fair to everyone with shared “racial, ethnic, economic, social, cultural, geographic, or historic identities,” and do not “unduly advantage or disadvantage” any political party. 

What’s lacking in the initiative language is a funding mechanism for the pallets of magic wands necessary to achieve this idyllic utopia. 

The members of the committee would be chosen by Republican and Democratic legislative leadership. Those members would, of course, be politically connected. Then those four politically connected people would choose three more politically connected members. These three must be registered as non-partisan voters for the previous four years, but all that requires of partisans with an agenda is a little prior planning. The commissioners can’t have been lobbyists, government employees, candidates for office, paid political consultants, or political party leaders. 

But because these people would still have to be politically connected to get nominated in the first place, and are therefore unlikely to be politically uninterested or neutral, all it means is that they will be young, have future ambitions, and will be ciphers to the voting public. They will also be completely unaccountable to the voting public if they do a bad job. 

The description of the initiative which would be used to sell it to the voters in an effort to amend the constitution doesn’t mention these potential threats to true independence. That incomplete description has led to a lawsuit being filed by Leonard Jackson, who being a pastor as well as an activist, is presumably better able to see the devil in the details. (Have we learned nothing from the promise-reality gap of marijuana legalization?) I hope he succeeds, because as ugly as the current system is, at least that sausage is largely done in the open, by the entire Legislature. 

There are much simpler constitutional mechanics for ensuring broad consensus before policy is approved – increase the threshold for passage/approval. Make approval of redistricting maps contingent on a 2/3, or even 3/4 vote, and require the maps to be approved before any other legislation is passed (or at least before the final budgets). Make legislative pay dependent upon it, or even better, if the maps are not approved and accepted by a deadline, bar incumbents from running for reelection. 

If we want to take communities with shared “racial, ethnic, economic, social, cultural, geographic, or historic identities” into account, the worst way to do that is to cut out most of the elected officials those communities elected in the first place. 

Personally, when it comes to deciding inherently political issues such as how voting maps are drawn, I trust politicians who wear their partisanship on their sleeve more than appointed bureaucrats who are incentivized to hide their true feelings. I believe the “best” answer (as opposed to the perfect one, which is impossible) is almost always found by subjecting ideas to the forge of open debate and critique in a purposely adversarial system. 

Is the current system perfect? Not by a long shot, and it has certainly done no favors for my personal political preferences, which I believe to be under-represented in the Legislature as compared to the population of the state as a whole. But I’ll take it every day of the week (or at least every 10 years) over the idea of a seven-member committee full of politically connected and publicly unaccountable mystery men and women deciding the future policy trajectory of our state. 

We can and should seek to improve our systems, but political questions like redistricting will always be political. There is no upside – and many potential dangers – to pretending otherwise. 

Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected]

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