Can Obama Salvage His Democracy Agenda?

Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA (Sipa via AP Images)

President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol on Tuesday, January 12, 2016. 

Having dropped the ball on virtually every good government proposal that he pledged to enact when he first ran for office, President Barack Obama has now zeroed in on an unlikely new target for his democracy agenda: redistricting reform.

As policy issues go, redistricting is usually about as exciting to voters as watching paint dry. Yet in sketching his vision for “a better politics” during his final State of the Union address this week, Obama placed redistricting reform at the top of the list.

"I think we’ve got to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters and not the other way around," declared Obama. In a significant departure from his prepared remarks, he added: "Let a bipartisan group do it."

It was one of the few specific policy proposals in a speech long on soaring rhetoric and short on detailed plans or solutions. Obama pledged to travel the country to promote a redistricting overhaul, along with reforms aimed at reducing the influence of money in politics and modernizing the voting system.

Reform advocates are understandably skeptical of Obama’s fresh promises to fix the broken political system, a centerpiece of his 2008 campaign. Obama swept into office pledging to overhaul the public financing system, bolster the Federal Election Commission, and run the most transparent administration in history. Despite new ethics restrictions imposed on executive branch employees, Obama disappointed reform-minded activists and voters on multiple fronts.

His ethics rules were accompanied by so many exceptions that they were widely perceived as meaningless. The presidential public financing system is moribund, thanks in part to Obama’s decision to reject public funding in both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The FEC, hobbled in part in part by long term vacancies and holdover appointees, is more ineffectual than ever. The administration’s transparency pledges also fell short. Not to mention Obama’s decision to embrace the super PACs that poured big money into his reelection, a reversal from his earlier condemnation of such groups.

Still, if Obama makes good on his pledge to tour the country rallying voters behind election system fixes, he might just make an impact. This is particularly true in the arena of redistricting reform, which has gone from being a subject discussed only by political scientists and policy wonks to one hotly contested on several ballot initiatives around the country, and at the heart of a closely watched Supreme Court challenge.

In Evenwel v. Abbot, the high court is considering a constitutional challenge to the legislative districts in Texas. The plaintiffs argue that lines should take into account only the eligible or registered voters living in a particular district, not the entire population as is now the case. The case, which came before the court for oral arguments in December, could have sweeping implications around the country, particularly in urban areas with large numbers of children or non-citizens.

Several states, including Obama’s home state of Illinois, are also mulling ballot initiatives that would take the drawing of district lines out of the hands of partisan legislatures, and put an independent, nonpartisan commission in charge. The redistricting reform movement has been fueled in part by the success of a pair of ballot initiatives in California in 2008 and 2010 that handed redistricting over to an independent commission, first for the state legislature and more recently for congressional districts.

“It does seem to be a redistricting moment in some ways,” says Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, which has promoted redistricting changes. Voters are increasingly frustrated with partisan gridlock, which has seeped from Congress to the state legislatures, says Li, and they in part blame gerrymandering—the practice of stacking voters into oddly-drawn districts to favor one party or the other. In the Republican Party, this has had the effect of making elected officials more vulnerable to Tea Party primary challengers than to Democrats in the general election—one reason why the GOP has continued to move to the right, and why some leading Republicans embrace redistricting reform.

Redistricting reform is not as sexy as, say, signing an executive order to force government contractors to disclose their political spending—the holy grail that many good government advocates now hold out as Obama’s last chance to redeem his promises for change. But it looks increasingly unlikely that Obama will take decisive action in an arena where until now he has largely punted. Instead, Obama may score a small but significant win for democracy via state ballot initiative fights over the increasingly controversial question of how district lines are drawn—particularly in Illinois.

“If the president gets behind this, I think this has a really good shot in his home state,” notes Li. “He’ll get to vote on it in November.”

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