Last summer, the supreme court refused to strike down the practice of partisan gerrymandering. While it is widely considered one of the least democratic aspects of the United States, it is also one that is as old as the United States itself. Named after Elbridge Gerry, a Massachusetts congressperson, gerrymandering is when congressional districts are drawn in unnatural, often partisan ways in order to make sure a candidate from one party always wins the seat. Some states have passed laws regulating the practice, others have passed laws implementing fair redistricting committees. Still, some, as will be discussed here, have done neither, and this causes several problems for voters and fair democracy itself, especially as technology advances and maps are drawn in an even more cutthroat manner. After all, if the vast, vast majority of districts are both extremely safe and the borders extremely sloppy, are most politicians really able to compete for votes, or do they just become monarchs of their districts, violating one of the most of Dahl’s requirements for democracy – that politicians of opposite parties are able to compete for votes. This is not to say every district should or could be competitive, but when 90% of districts still stay in the same party’s hands even in landslide midterm elections like 2018, eyebrows are raised.
Before delving into the negative effects of partisan gerrymandering, a note must be made about the supreme court decision itself. The case, Rucho vs. Common Cause was decided by a 5-4 majority. Chief Justice Roberts, in his majority opinion stated that “Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.” As some may already know, these close, very partisan decisions have become more common on the high court and do little to unite the country in trust behind this branch of government. More interestingly, while we usually believe that democratic erosion is something that occurs on the federal level, with the consequences trickling down to state and local governments, partisan gerrymandering is an example of democratic erosion at the state level, with the consequences trickling up to congress.
Now, as already stated, some states handle gerrymandering in the most democratic way possible – through a nonpartisan commission who draws fair maps. New Jersey, Minnesota, and Iowa are just a few of the states that have done this, and all three have far more than average purple, or swing districts. This serves two positive purposes – firstly, it makes sure congresspeople listen to their voters as every vote may really matter if the district is close, secondly, it makes citizens feel as though their vote really counts, increasing turnout and participation. If one was a Republican and lived in a district that consistently gave a Democrat 80%, they might feel a bit beleaguered and stay home. With more tossup districts, a larger number of voters can feel as though their vote has made a difference, making them more likely to vote in the future and less likely to be dissuaded from the civic process.
Some states handle gerrymandering in an extremely partisan manner, and most had one thing in common when they last drew their maps – party trifectas. A trifecta is when the same political party controls both state houses and the governor’s office of a state. The four states with the most egregious gerrymanders – Ohio, Texas, Illinois and Maryland had these when their maps were last drawn. In Texas and Ohio there is a GOP trifecta while in Illinois and Maryland team blue controls it all. These four states have implemented some truly nasty maps, none of which would motivate either a swing voter or voter from the minority party to increase their participation. However, looking ahead, perhaps what will be the most obvious case of blatant gerrymandering next year lies in the state of Tennessee.
Jim Cooper, a Nashville congressman, has reason to be very afraid of redistricting – arguably more afraid than any other Democrat in the country. He represents Nashville and the surrounding area – Nashville, while a natural fit for a congressional district as it has around 700,000 residents, is surrounded by deep, deep red territory. Cooper recently called Rucho vs. Common Cause “shortsighted and dangerous for our country.” and it is easy to see why he in particular would take notice of it. Tennessee is also a state with a trifecta, and many are concerned they will implement an 8-1 Republican majority next year, splitting the Nashville metro into four separate districts, all deep red. To make matters more difficult, there are no checks or balances on redistricting in Tennessee, and Republicans have a supermajority in both state legislatures.
Democratic erosion is already hard enough to combat when at the top of a nation’s system, but when it trickles up from decisions states make, the ingenious system we created can be turned on its head. Redistricting reform is bipartisan and popular, and more and more states are taking notice, but for every minute wasted in implementing it nationally more and more voters become disaffected, and can one really blame them?
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