An Uphill Battle

What is gerrymandering and can it be stopped?  

The two-party system gives Americans the ability to choose their leaders. When it comes to picking US Senators and state executives like Governors, voters have a choice between candidates. All votes are added statewide. One voter equals one vote.

Even in states we consider deep red and deep blue, statewide races remain unpredictable. Democrats win in Alabama. Republicans win in Massachusetts. Voters surprise us when they choose candidates over party. The only predictable fact about these races is that the voters will choose their leaders.

But in congressional races? It's frequently the other way around. 

Consider Maryland’s 6th District, which includes the state’s entire western portion and before the last census had voted Republican in 10 straight Congressional races. In 2012, the district suddenly became safely Democratic. What changed? It wasn’t the politics of the district’s voters. It was the voters themselves. Democratic politicians redrew the district's boundaries to include enough of Democratic-leaning Montgomery County to guarantee the seat would favor their party for the foreseeable future. Democratic leaders in Maryland did not hide their reasoning. As Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley described the logic behind changing the map, "It was also my intent to create … a district where the people would be more likely to elect a Democrat than a Republican." 

Depending on the state, gerrymandering can benefit or hurt members of either party, and politicians have taken note. In a recent amicus filed in Gill v Whitford, the Wisconsin gerrymandering case before the Supreme Court, Sen John McCain, Sen Sheldon Whitehouse, and their legal council argued, “Americans do not like gerrymandering. They see its mischief, and absent a legal remedy, their sense of powerlessness and discouragement has increased, deepening the crisis of confidence in our democracy." The outcome, in the eyes of the Senators, is nothing short of disenfranchisement by a different name: "From our vantage point, we see wasted votes and silenced voices. We see hidden power. And we see a correctable problem.”

Senators McCain and Whitehouse were not alone in crossing party lines to oppose the Wisconsin’s map. Former Wisconsin state senators, Democrat Tim Cullen and Republican Dale Schulz, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year, “Fighting gerrymandering is about fighting abuse of power, no matter who does it.” 

Ending partisan redistricting remains an uphill challenge. Last week the Supreme Court declined to rule on the challenge by Maryland Republicans to the 6th district’s map, unanimously sent the Wisconsin case back to a lower court for reargument, and earlier this week voted 5-4 that Texas’s district map, which overwhelmingly favors Republicans, was not a violation of the Voting Rights Act. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor spoke of those affected by the decision, “Those voters must return to the polls in 2018 and 2020 with the knowledge that their ability to exercise meaningfully their right to vote has been burdened by the manipulation of district lines specifically designed to target their communities and minimize their political will.”

So is gerrymandering a problem to fix or a reality its critics will have to accept? Ballot and legislative measures have already begun in several states to end the practice.  If the hope is to set a fairer playing field, voters might also consider voting more. Higher turnout would make seats designed to be 'safe' more competitive, and when it comes to participation, Americans have nowhere to go but up because we currently lag behind most development countries.  The most far-reaching reform would be changing the way we elect the President. If voters knew that the winner of the popular vote would always win the Presidency, turnout would increase in all states on a quadrennial basis because every voter would know that his or her vote counted toward determining the outcome of the presidential election. Right now, only a handful of states are considered competitive in any given cycle, and they alone receive attention and policy promises from candidates running for president. National turnout suffers as a result, but a change to our current system is closer than you might think.

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Reed E. Hundt