Democ­racy’s big­gest ob­sta­cle

Putting a halt to ger­ry­man­der­ing, the draw­ing of elec­toral dis­tricts in a dis­torted way for par­ti­san gain, may be one of the only ways to fix Amer­ica’s vot­ing sys­tem.


There is an enor­mous para­dox at the heart of Amer­i­can democ­racy. Congress is deeply and stub­bornly un­pop­u­lar. On av­er­age, be­tween 10 and 15 per­cent of Amer­i­cans ap­prove of Congress—on a par with pub­lic sup­port for traf­fic jams and cock­roaches. And yet in the 2016 elec­tion only eight in­cum­bents—eight out of a body of 435 rep­re­sen­ta­tives—were de­feated at the polls.

If there is one sil­ver bul­let that could fix Amer­i­can democ­racy, it’s get­ting rid of ger­ry­man­der­ing, the now com­mon­place prac­tice of draw­ing elec­toral dis­tricts in a dis­torted way for par­ti­san gain. It’s also one of a dwin­dling num­ber of is­sues that prin­ci­pled cit­i­zens—Demo­crat and Repub­li­can—should be able to agree on. Polls con­firm that an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans of all stripes op­pose ger­ry­man­der­ing.

In the 2016 elec­tions for the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, the av­er­age elec­toral mar­gin of vic­tory was 37.1 per­cent. That’s a fig­ure you’d ex­pect from North Korea, Rus­sia or Zim­babwe—not the United States. But the shock­ing re­al­ity is that the typ­i­cal race ended with a Demo­crat or a Repub­li­can win­ning nearly 70 per­cent of the vote, while the chal­lenger won just 30 per­cent.

Last year, only 17 seats out of 435 races were de­cided by a mar­gin of 5 per­cent or less. Just 33 seats in to­tal were de­cided by a mar­gin of 10 per­cent or less. More than 9 out of 10 House races were land­slides where the cam­paign was a fore­gone con­clu­sion be­fore bal­lots were even cast. In 2016, there were no truly com­pet­i­tive con­gres­sional races

in 42 of the 50 states. That is not healthy for a sys­tem of govern­ment that, at its core, is de­fined by po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion.

Ger­ry­man­der­ing is why Amer­i­can democ­racy is bro­ken.

The word “ger­ry­man­der” comes from an 1812 po­lit­i­cal car­toon drawn to par­ody Mas­sachusetts Gover­nor El­bridge Gerry’s re­drawn Se­nate dis­tricts. The car­toon de­picts one of the bizarrely shaped dis­tricts in the con­torted form of a fork-tongued sala­man­der. Since 1812, ger­ry­man­der­ing has been in­creas­ingly used as a tool to di­vide and dis­tort the elec­torate. More of­ten than not, state leg­is­la­tures are tasked with draw­ing dis­trict maps, al­low­ing the elec­toral foxes to draw and de­fend their hen­house dis­tricts.

While no party is in­no­cent when it comes to ger­ry­man­der­ing, a Wash­ing­ton Post anal­y­sis in 2014 found that eight of the 10 most ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts in the United States were drawn by Republicans.

As a re­sult, dis­tricts from the Illi­nois 4th to the North Carolina 12th of­ten look like spilled inkblots rather than co­her­ent vot­ing blocs. They are any­thing but ac­ci­den­tal. The Illi­nois 4th, for ex­am­ple, is nick­named “the Latin Ear­muffs” be­cause it con­nects two pre­dom­i­nantly Latino ar­eas by a thin line that is ef­fec­tively just one road. In so do­ing it packs Democrats into a con­torted dis­trict, en­sur­ing that those vot­ers cast bal­lots in a safely Demo­cratic pre­serve. The net re­sult is a weak­en­ing of the power of Latino votes and more Repub­li­can dis­tricts than the elec­toral math should rea­son­ably yield. Be­cause Democrats are packed to­gether as tightly as pos­si­ble in one dis­trict, Republicans have a chance to win sur­round­ing dis­tricts, even though they are vastly out­num­bered ge­o­graph­i­cally.

These un­com­pet­i­tive dis­tricts have a se­ri­ously cor­ro­sive ef­fect on the in­tegrity of democ­racy. If you’re elected to rep­re­sent a dis­trict that is 80 per­cent Repub­li­can or 80 per­cent Demo­cratic, there is ab­so­lutely no in­cen­tive to com­pro­mise. Ever. In

fact, there is a strong dis­in­cen­tive to col­lab­o­ra­tion, be­cause work­ing across the aisle al­most cer­tainly means the risk of a pri­mary chal­lenge from the far right or far left of the party. For the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tives, there is no real risk to los­ing a gen­eral elec­tion. But there is a very real threat of los­ing a fiercely con­tested pri­mary elec­tion. Over time, this causes sane peo­ple to pur­sue in­sane pan­der­ing and ex­treme po­si­tions. It is a key but of­ten over­looked source of con­tem­po­rary grid­lock and end­less bick­er­ing.

More­over, ger­ry­man­der­ing also dis­em­pow­ers and dis­torts cit­i­zen votes, which leads to de­creased turnout and a sense of pow­er­less­ness. In 2010 droves of Tea Party ac­tivists ea­ger to have their voices heard quickly re­al­ized that their own rep­re­sen­ta­tive was ei­ther a solidly lib­eral Demo­crat in an over­whelm­ingly blue dis­trict or a solidly con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can in an over­whelm­ingly red dis­trict. Those rep­re­sen­ta­tives would not lis­ten be­cause the elec­toral map meant that they didn’t need to.

Those who now op­pose Pres­i­dent Trump are quickly learn­ing the same les­son about the elec­toral cal­cu­la­tions made by their rep­re­sen­ta­tives as they make calls or write let­ters to con­gres­sional

rep­re­sen­ta­tives who seem about as likely to be swayed as gran­ite. This helps to ex­plain why 2014 turnout sagged to just 36.4 per­cent, the low­est rate since World War II. Why bother show­ing up when the re­sult al­ready seems pre-or­dained?

There are two pieces of good news. First, sev­eral court rul­ings in state and fed­eral courts have dealt a blow to ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts. Sev­eral court rul­ings ob­jected to dis­tricts that clearly were drawn along racial lines. Per­haps the most im­por­tant is a Wis­con­sin case ( Whit­ford v. Gill) that ruled that dis­tricts could not be drawn for de­lib­er­ate par­ti­san gain. The Supreme Court will rule on par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing in 2017, and it’s a case that could trans­form and re-in­vig­o­rate Amer­i­can democ­racy at a time when a pos­i­tive shock is sorely needed. This may hold true even if Neil Gor­such is con­firmed to the Supreme Court, as Jus­tices Kennedy and Roberts could side with the lib­eral mi­nor­ity.

Sec­ond, fix­ing ger­ry­man­der­ing is get­ting eas­ier. Given the right pa­ram­e­ters, com­puter mod­els can fairly ap­por­tion cit­i­zens into dis­tricts that are di­verse, com­pet­i­tive and ge­o­graph­i­cally sen­si­ble, en­sur­ing that mi­nori­ties are not used as pawns in a na­tional po­lit­i­cal game.

These ef­forts can be bol­stered by strip­ping dis­trict draw­ing pow­ers from par­ti­san leg­is­la­tors and putting them into the hands of cit­i­zen-led com­mis­sions that are com­prised by an equal num­ber of Demo­crat- and Repub­li­can-lean­ing vot­ers. Par­ti­san pol­i­tics is to be ex­er­cised within the dis­tricts, not dur­ing their for­ma­tion. But ger­ry­man­der­ing in­ten­si­fies ev­ery decade re­gard­less, be­cause it’s not a po­lit­i­cally sexy is­sue. When’s the last time you saw a march against skewed dis­trict­ing?

Even if the marches do come some­day, the last stub­born bar­rier to get­ting re­form right is hu­man na­ture. Many peo­ple pre­fer to be sur­rounded by like-minded cit­i­zens rather than feel­ing like a lonely red oa­sis in a sea of blue or vice versa. Root­ing out ger­ry­man­der­ing won’t make San Fran­cisco or ru­ral Texas dis­tricts more com­pet­i­tive, no mat­ter the com­puter model used. And as the ur­ban/ru­ral di­vide in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics in­ten­si­fies, com­pet­i­tive dis­tricts will be harder and harder to draw. The more we clus­ter, the less we find com­mon ground and com­pro­mise.

Ul­ti­mately, though, we must re­mem­ber that what truly dif­fer­en­ti­ates democ­racy from despo­tism is po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion. The longer we al­low our dis­tricts to be hi­jacked by par­ti­sans, blue or red, the fur­ther we grav­i­tate away from the found­ing ideals of our re­pub­lic and the closer we inch to­ward the death of Amer­i­can democ­racy.

Brian Klaas is a Fel­low in Com­par­a­tive Pol­i­tics at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and au­thor of The Despot’s Ac­com­plice: How the West is Aid­ing & Abet­ting the De­cline of Democ­racy.

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