The democratic gem, the United States, is undergoing extensive backsliding due in part to gerrymandering. Gerrymandering by definition means to divide – to divide a state into districts as to unfairly give a political party an advantage in a majority of districts within such state. In Gill v Whitford, a case currently before the Supreme Court, Wisconsin Republicans skewed congressional lines like never “seen” before. In 2012, Wisconsin GOP won less than fifty percent of the vote but garnered an overwhelming sixty-one percent of the congressional seats in Wisconsin. One person, one vote? Yeah, right! Gerrymandering is without question problematic and undemocratic especially when it is systematic allowing its effects to transcends all levels – local, state, and federal. Yes, gerrymandering is inevitable (someone has to draw the lines right?) but a closer look reveals how gerrymandering is producing turmoil and diminishing our democratic institutions.
First, partisan gerrymandering is conducted with an unfair and unequal hand in essentially three ways: packing, cracking and tacking. Regardless of the technique employed, partisan gerrymandering strategically manipulates the electoral process before it even begins. Strategic manipulation involves an array of actions, largely undetected, that tilt the electoral playing field in favor of incumbents or other benefactors. Put plainly, the winner and loser are all but secured before even a single citizen cast their vote. Unsurprisingly, the competitiveness of elections has declined dramatically as a result, hence the influx of uncontested electoral races and “safe seats.” Safe seat is a political term that refers to those congressional districts that are regarded as fully secured for a political party or an incumbent. In hindsight, the opposing party has no chance of winning. The very fact that the term safe seat exists is problematic. To be frank, uncontested legislative races in state elections are essentially the norm. Federal elections, on the other hand, are usually regarded as the more competitive; however, in the 2016 election, 53 of 435 House seats were uncontested. In 2014 and 2012 there were only seventeen and eight such races respectively.
Competition is a necessary component of a democracy and without it our democracy, or any other democracy, cannot stand. This decline in electoral competitiveness is in large part due to the many advantages of incumbency that gerrymandering produces and maintains. In 2016, only 1.3 percent of all incumbents who sought a re-election bid were defeated and the average margin of victory was 35 percent, far beyond landslide margins of 20 percent. Ironically, these same incumbents enjoyed an abysmally low confidence rating of 7 percent in 2014. However, it has become increasingly hard for primary challengers to sell themselves to voters due in part to a large discrepancy in fundraising dollars, name recognition and kinship ties that incumbents enjoy. Although, we truly do despise our representatives, the manner in which districts are gerrymandered and the power of incumbency ensure that we, the people, neither have nor will we ever have an adequate means to defeat them.
Second, gerrymandering increases polarization in our democracy as who controls the drawing of the maps is of vital importance. Recently, there have been numerous challenges to partisan gerrymandering some of which have resulted in the redrawing of congressional maps, resulting in wins and loses for both parties. In a political crisis, no defeat is a small defeat and EVERY defeat is taken personally, furthering the divide and deepening the hatred between those involved. Our two party system requires a certain level of cooperation, respect and restraint amongst political leaders; it is clear that gerrymandering has erased any semblance of that. Let me explain. The large majority of political ads are character and personal attacks ads instead of a contrast between opposing policy proposals. The moral assassination of our representatives has trickled down to the citizens and increased polarization and hatred amongst various groups (i.e. rich and poor; black and white; ANTIFA and liberals). Furthermore, governmental shutdowns have increased substantially. In fact, 2018 is the first year to have multiple government shutdowns, with two as of February 2018. Both parties have used the dreaded nuclear option to upend principles that our forefathers established to ensure political cooperation. Undoubtably, the climax of this polarization was when the GOP controlled senate blocked then President Barack H. Obama’s nomination, Merrick Garland, for Supreme Court Justice for the remainder of his tenure as POTUS. In essence, the GOP “stole” a life term appointment to the nation’s highest bench from the Democrats. More recently, due to the SCOTUS refusal to hear their case, Pennsylvania Republicans threatened to impeach six state Supreme Court Justices for overt party affiliation because they ordered the congressional maps, written by Republicans, unconstitutional. This assessment is not exhaustive but strives to highlight the increased polarization that have origins in disagreements regarding the drawing of congressional maps.
Finally, gerrymandering decreases both inclusiveness and liberalization in our democracy. The public is aware of the amount of polarization amongst representatives and confident/approval polls reflect that. As public dissatisfaction continues to grow, so too does the public awareness of partisan redistricting which they believe is responsible for “gaming the system.” To them, gerrymandering is evidence that congressional representatives act in their own best interest and the growing mistrust and declining confidence in government reflects such phenomena. Sheila Kennedy notes that one’s participation in government and compliance with the laws “promulgated by government” depends on a belief that ‘the system’ is a leveled playing field. Without this implied fairness, the system is ineffective as the public no longer wishes to participate, which arguably decreases both liberalization and inclusiveness. It increases the “my vote won’t count” mentality which leads to lower turnouts and in turn diminishes inclusiveness. The opposition voting power is diminished as they are strategically positioned to have their voices silenced. As a result, they cannot wage a successful challenge to liberate themselves of the incumbents’ oppression or the curse of partisan gerrymandering.
Thus, in order to save our democracy and prevent further backsliding or worse, a regime change, the Supreme Court must rule extreme partisan gerrymandering unconstitutional and impose a concrete standard to measure it in Gill v. Whitford. Doing so will re-empower the opposition and increase inclusiveness and liberation while eradicating both the advantages of incumbency and gerrymandering that are detrimental to our democratic institutions.
*Photo by Nathan Rubin