This week marks the 271st birthday of the politician who first approved of "gerrymandering." As governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry (also the nation's fifth vice president) agreed to the idea of drawing congressional districts in odd shapes to ensure that the political party in power won the majority of the state's seats in the House. His enduring legacy is the partisan split in Congress that dismisses compromise and disdains bipartisan solutions to the nation's biggest problems.
But last month, the Supreme Court took a first step toward burying the corruption of gerrymandering. In a 5-4 decision, the justices approved of voters deciding by referendum to create independent, nonpartisan commissions to draw a state's congressional map. Last week, the Florida Supreme Court followed up by ruling that parts of a current redistricting plan violate the state constitution by being crassly political.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion said voters have the right to go around politically skewed state legislatures and "address the problem of partisan gerrymandering — the drawing of legislative district lines to subordinate adherents of one political party and entrench a rival party in power."
"Entrench" is the right word. One popular joke around Washington is that redistricting by state legislatures allows members of Congress to pick their voters instead of voters picking their members of Congress.
When it comes to 2016 House races, more than 400 of the 435 seats in the House are rated as "safe" for incumbent Republicans and Democrats because of gerrymandering. That leaves only about seven percent of the seats in Congress open to a meaningful contest.
Gerrymandering has distorted congressional politics by eliminating the need for either party to appeal to the political middle. Instead, the members of Congress live in fear of a challenge from the far right (in the case of Republicans) or the far left (in the case of Democrats).
Gerrymandering is the mother of the "Tea Party Caucus" that undermines the Speaker, John Boehner (R-Ohio), by denigrating him as insufficiently conservative when he tries to make budget deals with Democrats.
Gerrymandering is the reason President Obama tells supporters the best thing they can do to help him is to move to a red state and help break the GOP hold on Congress.
In the 2014 cycle, an off-year election, Republicans had the edge in voter enthusiasm as well as control of more state legislatures. As a result of the power of gerrymandering, the GOP won 57 percent of all House seats even though they had just 52 percent of the votes.
Even in election years when majority control of the House changes from one party to the other, the reelection rate tied to gerrymandered districts is staggeringly high. In 2006, when Democrats won the House, 94 percent of incumbents were reelected. In 2010, when Republicans rode a Tea Party wave back to the majority, 85 percent of representatives retained their seat. This is the politics of back-room congressional mapping.
This era of unprecedented polarization and dysfunction borne of gerrymandering has current congressional approval ratings down to 15.8 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Obviously, Republicans as well as Democrats disapprove of what is going on in this broken Congress.
Senator John McCain has often said that the only people approving of Congress these days are "paid staffers and blood relatives."
The adoption of independent state commissions to draw congressional maps is by far the most important step available to voters longing for a Congress that works. Seven states already have nonpartisan commissions in place: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington state. With the Supreme Court's recent ruling, the door is open to more. It is not as sexy as the court's recent rulings on gay marriage and Obamacare, but this high court ruling also has historic potential. It opens the door for voters in more states to get referendums on the ballot calling for nonpartisan panels to set the lines for congressional districts — and so revive a functional Congress.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.