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Blame voter apathy

By PETER SIELMAN

Publication: The Day

Published April 14. 2013 4:00AM

Polls continue to show the public views Congress as dysfunctional and unlikely to effectively address many of the economic and social challenges facing the nation. The core of the problem may be how we elect our congressmen. Gerrymandering of districts and low voter participation - particularly in primary elections - often leads to the election of political partisans who are less likely to compromise on policy. Many Congressmen are driven not by what is best for the country or best for their constituents, but rather by what will get them re-elected.

Across the country state legislatures have distorted congressional district boundaries - gerrymandering - to make them safe for conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats, depending who holds legislative power.

Adding to the increased election of candidates representing the political extremes is low primary election turnout. Those voters who do vote in primaries tend to be from the far right or left of their party's ideological spectrum. The result is that some Republican incumbents base their congressional votes on how to avoid or win a primary election against a Tea Party opponent. Likewise, some Democrat incumbents vote so as to avoid or win a primary against a more liberal Democrat.

The result has been a substantial diminution of bipartisan legislation and a repeated lurching from crisis to crisis, rather than working together to address national problems in a timely fashion.

What could be done to counter this problem? First, take the creation of congressional districts out of the hands of politicians. Gerrymandering is typically perpetrated by state legislatures. One result in the 2012 election was that although the Republicans won 234 seats to the Democrat's 201 seats in House races, the total vote for Democratic House candidates actually exceeded the votes cast for Republicans. Putting the determination of congressional districts into apolitical hands would help. Non-partisans would attempt, at least, to make congressional districts represent communities of interest, rather than trying to game district lines to maximize the number of seats won by one party.

The tougher problem is primary election participation. In Connecticut we have closed primaries (only voters registered in a party can vote in that party's primary election). In my town of Salem, approximately 45 percent of registered voters are unaffiliated, thereby limiting primary election participation to less than 55 percent of registered voters. In the 2012 Connecticut primary elections the Salem turnout was 27 percent of eligible Republicans and 17 percent of eligible Democrats - combined that's less than 12 percent of the electorate.

Several states have open primaries. In an open primary, voters can vote in either party's primary regardless of their own party affiliation. They may only vote in one party's primary, however, not both. Unfortunately, the turnout statistics for open primaries are generally no better than closed primaries; worse in some states.

The real problem is low participation in all elections. Many elections are won by which voters are persuaded to come out to vote, rather than a strong shift in preferences of the entire electorate. The parties are now concentrating on energizing their partisans, as opposed to shaping their policies to benefit the nation as a whole.

I think the electorate has itself to blame. The parties are gaming the system to maximize their election wins by taking advantage of low voter participation. We need to counter the low participation by making it easier to register and vote and to make potential voters aware of the correlation between congressional dysfunction and low participation.

Peter Sielman lives in Salem and is a former first selectman of that town.

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