American Democracy Must Solve Its Gerrymandering Problem by Ezra Dulit-Greenberg @ Brown University
Our country was founded on a principle that we have not yet lived up to in practice, but one that we strive for nevertheless: that the best government is formed from representatives of the people. Voting is the somewhat crude method we use to select the men and women who will, supposedly, work to put our preferences into practice. Our democratic system works when citizens’ voices are heard through votes, and when the votes translate into representation.
The American democratic system is ill. Through news articles and thinkpieces, books and white papers—not to mention a prominent Supreme Court case—Americans have come to know one of the most intimidating threats to our way of government: gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering has been around since before The Boston Gazette coined the term for it in 1812. Under the Constitution, congressional seats must be reapportioned among the states based on population shifts every ten years. Under a pair of 1960s Supreme Court decisions, states must redraw districts to account for population shift within their borders as well. The result is a decennial redistricting process that, in most states, has become a naked power grab for the party in power—the party that draws the maps.
If the goal of a democracy is to listen to citizens, the goal of a gerrymander is to silence them. Through the twin techniques of ‘packing’ and ‘cracking,’ mapmakers can ensure that one political party is perpetually in the minority, and that their voters effectively don’t count. Parties can pack opponents into one deformed district, conceding that one but picking up its surrounding seats; or they can crack a community of opponents down the middle, diluting their voting power among supporters. The new measure of partisan gerrymandering, before the Supreme Court now, aims to measure how successful mapmakers have been.
In many states, they have been successful indeed. In 2012, 80,000 more Pennsylvanians voted for Democratic congressional candidates than for Republicans; Republicans won 13 of 18 seats. In Wisconsin, voters reelected Barack Obama by seven points and elected Senator Tammy Baldwin by nearly six; Republicans won the State Assembly by 21 seats. Mitt Romney won North Carolina by just two points; Republicans won nine of 13 congressional seats and supermajorities in both state house chambers.
Gerrymandering benefits Republicans far more these days, but the problem is not confined to one party: in 2010, Massachusetts Democratic House candidates won just 57.5% of the votes and every one of the ten seats.
Politicians and pundits alike sometimes treat gerrymandering as a nuisance or an annoyance. This is wrong. Gerrymandering is a deep rot at the core of American democracy, one that strikes at citizens’ abilities to make their wishes heard at every level of government. This is not an abstract or theoretical problem: in 2012, the first year after the 2011 redistricting cycle, Democrats won 1.5 million more U.S. House votes nationwide and seated 33 fewer legislators. Gerrymandering denied the Democrats a unified government, and denied millions of Americans the policies they affirmatively voted for.
As we upgrade gerrymandering, we degrade our democracy. Robert Dahl’s requirements for democracy are many, but the most important is that the government be responsive to citizens’ voices. There are many places where the American system is unresponsive to citizens’ voices: the electoral college, the courts, the military—but congressional representation is designed to be the bulwark against such unresponsiveness. As some commentators point out, gerrymandering is not destiny—but it is getting more and more effective.
None of this is to mention how Republicans came to control the maps. Unlike heavily Democratic gerrymandered states like Maryland and Rhode Island, many of the gerrymandered Republican states (North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania) are definitively purple. As David Daley’s Ratf**ked investigates, their mapmakers were elected with the help of dark money flowing from billionaire financiers to key state house races. They won just enough races that deep purple Ohio has passed some of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country. When just a few hold vast power over the fates of the many, the democratic experiment must be called into question.
With new mapmaking technology and irrevocably gerrymandered maps across the country, there are states whose legislators have locked themselves into power under any statistically conceivable electoral outcome. They will draw the maps for next decade, and the one after, and the one after that.
Wisconsin is one such state. Without intervention or a sweeping realignment, Wisconsin will be Republican from now on—and Wisconsin Democrats can either give up Wisconsin, the Democratic Party, or their right to a vote that matters in the slightest. Wisconsin Republicans have seized perpetual power irrespective of the people’s votes, and against this backdrop it’s difficult to view such cases as anything less than radical democratic backsliding—and proto-authoritarianism.
This is the case before the Supreme Court now. Having taken apart racial gerrymanders since the 1960s, the court now considers whether partisan gerrymanders can be measured, and whether they will be allowed under the Constitution. Four Supreme Court justices—Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor—will vote to end partisan gerrymanders. Four—Alito, Roberts, Thomas, and Gorsuch—will not.
Ultimately and ironically, the vote of Anthony Kennedy—one man unelected, tenured for life, and untethered from public accountability—may well be the only chance we have to save the most indispensable function of our representative democracy.