By Noah Houghton '20
If you’ve been keeping up with cable news or reputable print news organizations, then you’ve probably read or at least seen an article about gerrymandering. In the face of all that’s going on, you may have elected to spend your valuable time keeping up to date on one or both of Trump’s failed immigration bans, ongoing investigations into the role of Russian operatives in the 2016 election, or even Paul Ryan’s gleeful endorsement of the least supported health care bill since the Affordable Care Act. All of these are important topics which you should stay apprised of; but none of them are as important as gerrymandering. It’s not as sexy as the chipping away of our most treasured democratic institutions, and you probably won’t see it in the headlines. But rest assured, if progressives want to take back power in our government, they have to start here.
Gerrymandering in its simplest terms is a process by which members of one political party redraw electoral districts to benefit them and to make it more difficult for the opposition party to win elections. The Washington Post posted a great article about this, along with the graphic used below, on March 1, 2015.
Gerrymandering is, legally speaking, illegal; but of course that doesn’t stop politicians on both sides of the aisle from doing it. It’s how Democrats win the popular vote but lose seats: similar to the Electoral College, it allows clever politicians to allocate more resources to winning a few powerful areas instead of appealing to the wider audience that constitutes an actual majority of constituents. It flies in the face of the central democratic principle of one citizen, one vote, and represents a serious threat to democracy.
In most states, districts are redrawn by the legislature. According to a Loyola Law School online resource, “thirty-seven state legislatures have primary control of [state legislative lines], and forty-two legislatures have primary control over the congressional lines in their state (including five of the states with just one congressional district).” What does that mean? It means that in most states, the party that controls the legislature controls district lines. It matters who’s in a state’s Governor’s Mansion too. As the Loyola resource notes, “in most of these states, district lines pass just like regular legislation, with a majority vote in each legislative chamber, subject to a veto by the Governor.” This means that if Republicans control a state’s legislature and governorship, they can draw districts in any way they please.
Republicans control either the governor’s seat or state legislature in forty-four of the fifty states, and have control of both in twenty-five of them. This is a serious crisis for progressives; if we can’t wrest control of these legislatures or at least acquire enough seats to force negotiation by 2020, when districts will next be redrawn, Democrats may see themselves districted out of contention for the next ten or more years.
Of course, this cuts both ways. As comedian John Oliver noted in a recent episode of his HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” Democrats have used gerrymandering to protect their positions in the government as well as to maintain political advantage. This isn’t a partisan issue, really; it cuts to the heart of what we think a democracy should be.
So what can you do? Well, you can join advocacy groups like End Gerrymandering, a collaboration between five groups launched to support anti-gerrymandering efforts; or you could call your state representatives and ask them to support nonpartisan (even non-human) districting on a legislative level; or, most effectively, you could move. Studies show that self-segregating by ideology is damaging to liberals, who tend to live in high-density cities that become liberal bastions of relatively low value in statewide elections because they’re contained within a single district. Get out and vote no matter where you live, but if you live in a swing state you might do the most good by moving (if you have the means) to a more conservative neighborhood, and voting blue there. After all, it’s harder to draw lines between houses than it is between neighborhoods (even though, as Oliver points out, that can happen too).