STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Political battle in Washington is prompting some Americans to ask if there's something wrong with the rules under which politicians are elected. Lawmakers seem exceedingly responsive to activists who vote in party primaries, and often out of step with most Americans. Several states have are trying to change the way congressional districts are drawn.
NPR's Mara Liasson has the story.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: John Fortier is the director of the Democracy Project at the bipartisan Policy Center, which is working on ways to make politics less dysfunctional.
JOHN FORTIER: Our parties have become more polarized. And one thing that that means is that Republicans are sitting in pretty safe Republican seats, and Democrats are sitting in safe Democratic seats. So, really, it is across the board. There are not as many centrists, not as many competitive seats.
LIASSON: During the government shutdown fight, we learned that conservative republicans in the House answer to a different political calculus than national Republicans. They represented safe, conservative districts, which meant they're more concerned about a primary challenge from the Tea Party than a general election fight with a Democrat.
One reason is that congressional district boundaries are drawn by politicians to make their seats as safe as possible. It's a system where politicians get to choose their voters, instead of the other way around. But several states are trying to change the redistricting process, which occurs once every 10 years after a new census is taken. Steve Greene is a political scientist in North Carolina, where a bill to do just that is before the legislature.
STEVE GREENE: It would take redistricting out of the hands of the politicians and put it into the hands of a professional staff, who would be forbidden from drawing those districts for political purposes.
LIASSON: Population, not political affiliation, would be the only criteria. And that, says Greene, would be a big change for North Carolina's congressional district map.
GREENE: Right now, North Carolina has nine Republican seats and four Democratic seats in a variety of really crazy shapes, to be honest. That has got to be one of the most effective gerrymanders in what is really essentially a 50-50 state.
LIASSON: Several states already have a bipartisan or non-partisan redistricting process, including California, which enacted another reform aimed at limiting hyper-partisanship. It's called the top-two primary. It was passed by a voter referendum and spearheaded by Steve Peace. Peace is a former Democratic state legislator who's also famous for something else. When people meet him, they often say...
STEVE PEACE: Aren't you the guy that did "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes"? And I generally say guilty.
LIASSON: Yes, Peace is responsible for the 1970s cult movie series, which he says was really about politics.
PEACE: "Killer Tomatoes" was - I hate to have people take it too seriously. It is about killer tomatoes. But it also really was about government dysfunction, and it was about the absurd way in which we react and overreact to crisis.
LIASSON: With the top-two primary system, Peace set out to make California politics a little less absurd and a little less partisan. Here's how it works: There's just one open primary in each congressional district. All the candidates are on the ballot: Republican, Democrat, third party. Any registered voter can participate. The top two candidates go on to the general election. In extremely conservative districts, that's often two Republicans. In very liberal districts, it's sometimes two Democrats. The law went into effect just last year, so it's too early to draw conclusions, but, Steve Peace says, it's already having an effect on elected officials.
PEACE: It's not about who gets elected. It's about how they behave after they get elected. The truth is, most politicians are far more reasonable human beings than we appear to be in public, because we all act like idiots trying to appeal to that narrow partisan base that we're dependent upon for reelection in 95 percent of these legislative congressional districts. You could see the evidence of that in this last shutdown vote.
LIASSON: Peace points out that half of California's Republican Congress members broke with the Tea Party on the shutdown. In Washington state, where non-partisan primaries have been in place since 2008, all the Republican Congress members voted against the shutdown. Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now runs the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, says the combined effect of non-partisan redistricting and the top-two primary is making the state's politics less polarized.
DAN SCHNUR: What that's done is it's created a much more responsive group of legislators and congressional members, because they know that their re-election is not solely dependent on the ideological base of their own party. They can actually work across party lines without having to worry about the Tea Party or Move On running a primary challenge against them.
LIASSON: Democrats still have a strong majority in California's legislature, but those Democrats' voting records are becoming more moderate and pro-business. And, says Schnur, there are lessons for Republicans in these changes.
SCHNUR: At the national level, you're just beginning to see the so-called Republican establishment starting to try to figure out a way to push back against the Tea Party. These type of reforms wouldn't eliminate conservative Republicans any more than they'd eliminate liberal Democrats, but what they would do is eliminate the disincentive for a Republican - either moderate or conservative - to find ways to work with people on the other side of the aisle.
LIASSON: The purpose of changes like the top-two primary and non-partisan redistricting is to try to realign the political incentives for elected officials, so that serving the public and getting re-elected are not in conflict. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: And you hear Mara Liasson right here on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.