Let Democracy Work

Stop Putting Our Rights In the Hands Of Unaccountable Commissions

Thousands of years ago in Athens, Greece an idea was born. It was called democracy. It was based on the radical idea that the people were the source of all political power and that they should govern themselves.

As practiced in Athens, democracy was a direct, personal affair. The citizens of the city gathered on a hill near the Acropolis. They debated the topics of the day. They voted as individuals on each and every question that needed to be decided.

Democracy in this early form was imperfect. Only men could vote. Large numbers of individuals, particularly slaves, were disenfranchised. Still, it was the beginning of a process, which would ultimately lead to the formation of our own government in 1776.

Over the intervening millennia, democracy has faced threats from any number of hostile political systems – communism, aristocracy, monarchy. All have had in common a belief that the people must in some way be  controlled and directed, that they are incapable of deciding for themselves what is best. Some one, some thing, a party, a king, a class of nobles, must protect the “great unwashed” from themselves and make the hard decisions for them.

This struggle remains very much alive today. We have seen it on display since the election of President Trump in Washington as a class of unelected bureaucrats has tried at every turn to obstruct his agenda and substitute their judgment for that of the people of the United States who elected Donald Trump President. It is not only in Washington that this process is playing out, however. We see it on full display right now in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on the question of gerrymandering.

In response to concerns about the gerrymandering of Pennsylvania’s electoral map, Pennsylvania Governor Wolf has proposed taking the power to create electoral districts away from the legislature and handing it over to an 11-member bipartisan commission. This commission would then submit three maps to lawmakers, and the legislature would be required to choose one of the three proposals put to it by this commission.

Wolf, predictably enough, touts the proposal as being superior to the current system and an effort to remove politics from the process of establishing the boundaries of electoral districts. He stresses the value of having a “non-partisan” committee using “objective” criteria take over a process heretofore under the control of politicians and political parties.

There is only one problem, and it was summed up neatly by Mike Straub, spokesperson for Pennsylvania House Republicans. “The power to draw district lines for state House and Senate seats is strictly delegated to the legislature in our state constitution. We will take into consideration proposals to modernize the current process, but an 11-member panel will never be as representative of the commonwealth as 253 legislators and the governor is, nor will an 11-member panel allow for as much transparency and opportunity for input as the amendment process currently provides.”

Gerrymandering is an offensive and destructive practice. Playing with the boundaries of electoral districts to give an unfair political advantage to any political party is an abomination. It disenfranchises voters. It skews the electoral map. It is indefensible and undemocratic.

The fact remains. The power to decide the political map of Pennsylvania – and all political districts in the U.S. – lies with the people. It is those people who, through their duly elected representatives, must decide what that map looks like, how it will be drawn and when it will be changed.

For all of the Governor’s references to the advantages of his commission proposal, ultimately what his plan is based on is the idea that the people and their representatives are not capable of making the decisions that need to be made. They – WE – cannot be trusted with this power. We must be protected from ourselves, and we must accept that a group of unelected officials, a self-appointed intelligentsia, knows better than we do how to proceed.

Democracy is imperfect. It remains nonetheless the last, best hope for humanity.   As Winston Churchill said over seventy years ago, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Leave the power to draw the political map where it belongs, with the elected representatives of the people of Pennsylvania, in this case. We live in a democracy, and power resides not with some commission meeting in a back room in Harrisburg (or some other state’s capital) but with the people.

This article was first submitted by the author to the Scranton-based, https://www.thetimes-tribune.com on 14 September 2019, which as of this date, has declined to publish this article as an Op/Ed in their newspaper.