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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Charlie Cooper: Voting rights legislation should have passed, but not for the reasons you think

By Charlie Cooper Tribune News Service

News media gave a distorted picture of the historic importance of the fair-elections legislation offered by Democrats in the U.S. Congress. To be fair, it’s not easy to describe this mammoth bill with its many aspects.

Most stories focused primarily on the impact on registering and voting. These are, indeed, critical aspects of the proposal. The For the People Act would have set national standards for federal elections including: automatic and same-day voter registration, early voting and voting by mail, and purging of voter rolls that some states have used against the poor.

These items got most of the attention, and they are the ones that most fit in with the D-versus-R framing that appeals to partisan emotions – and which led Senate Republicans to block the bill in its current form last month. But many components of the legislation that garnered less attention are popular with voters on both sides of the aisle and worth pursuing in any compromise versions that develop going forward.

Among them was an effort to shore up election security by requiring voting machines to leave a paper trail and be made in the U.S. But the two most important aspects we should keep are outlawing gerrymandering in establishing districts for the House of Representatives and tackling the growing cancer of money in politics.

Using gerrymandering, a state can set up districts that favor one political party. The favored party is almost guaranteed a comfortable majority in most districts. The other party gets fewer districts and will usually win those seats by huge margins. The powerful party thus gets more seats than its share of the electorate. As an example, Pennsylvania Democratic congressional candidates won more than 50% of the vote in the 2012 November elections but won only 5 of 18 seats in the House of Representatives.

Gerrymandering exacerbates voter polarization and cynicism. Because general elections are virtually meaningless for most seats in the House, candidates must pander to the more partisan voters who show up for primaries. And because many voters know that the district is fixed for one party or the other, they are less likely to vote.

Voters detest money corruption of our elections, and they are aware that Congress makes policy for the benefit of big-money donors rather than the people in general. That is why we are living through one of the worst eras of wealth and income inequality in our nation’s history. The For the People Act would have ended dark money and restored restrictions on campaign donations from foreign nationals. It would also have set up a public financing program for federal offices whereby candidates for Congress who agree not to accept large contributions could get matching funds for each small contribution from a citizen.

The way democracy is supposed to work, voters choose their representatives. Far too often in the United States, partisan politicians choose their voters through districting and ultra-wealthy campaign funders choose who can even have a chance to get on the ballot.

With gerrymandering banned, “safe” seats would vanish for Democrats and Republicans alike and all voters would have a much more equal say in who will represent them. We must ban gerrymandering before 2022 when the districts will again be set for a 10-year period.

With disclosure, voters would know who is paying for the attack ads. With public campaign financing, candidates would have a real incentive to talk to working people rather than sit in a cubicle for several hours per day calling people who can afford a maximum contribution ($2,900 per year).

This bill should have passed not merely because Democrats (justifiably) don’t like election changes that have been enacted in Republican states in the past few months. Rather, it should have passed because it repairs root causes of damage to our democratic republic – extreme partisanship and money corruption of our politicians. It’s now up to Congress to reintroduce those efforts in legislation that actually has a shot at being enacted.

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