Our Common Cause: End partisan gerrymandering
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In today’s highly charged political atmosphere, with so much attention focused on our disagreements, it’s easy to lose sight of Americans’ shared values. One of those is our belief that free speech means everyone’s voice should be heard and that every eligible voter should participate in elections that are fair, secure, and accessible, with every vote counted as cast.

While Democrats, Republicans and independents share a reverence for free speech and fair elections, too many politicians in both parties are focused on winning those elections and maximizing power, even when that means manipulating the rules of the game for partisan gain.

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Their efforts are particularly intense in “battleground” or “swing” states like North Carolina but also are evident in states like Maryland, where one party – in Maryland’s case the Democrats – has long been dominant. The good news is that voters in both parties and watchdog groups  are willing to stand up and fight these shenanigans.

A lawsuit filed by Common Cause in North Carolina this month, and a multi-front fight over redistricting in Maryland are cases in point. The Tar Heel State may be the most closely contested in this years’ presidential campaign. President Obama carried it in 2008, but Mitt Romney prevailed in 2012. Gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races typically go back and forth between the parties and the state’s congressional delegation was almost equally divided through the 2000s.

So how did Republicans win 10 of 13 House seats in 2014? And how did they do that when their House candidates attracted 54 percent of the vote, a total one would expect to produce no more than a 7-6 GOP advantage?

The answer, a federal court in Greensboro concluded earlier this year, is that Republican state legislators manipulated district boundaries by loading reliably Democratic African-American voters into a few districts, artificially and illegally creating GOP majorities elsewhere.

Ordered by the court to draw new maps, free of racial discrimination, GOP legislators decided to replace racial bias with political bias, the Common Cause lawsuit alleges.

The pleadings in Common Cause v. Rucho quote instructions that state Rep. David Lewis, co-chair of the committee that drew the lines, gave to his colleagues. The maps should “give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” Lewis said.

Lewis boasted that such political discrimination is legal, no doubt relying on the Supreme Court’s historic reluctance to substitute its judgment for that of elected officials when it comes to partisan gerrymandering.

But the Common Cause v. Rucho litigators believe the Carolina gerrymander is so clearly partisan and so egregious that the high court will put its foot down. They point to a 2004 opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, arguing that partisan gerrymandering is subject to the court’s oversight if proper standards for measuring it can be found.

Journalists typically describe gerrymandering as a contest between political parties. But the truth is that gerrymandering pits political power against the people, regardless of which party holds power. That’s evident in Maryland, where Democratic legislators engineered such an egregious gerrymander that even a longtime Democratic voter couldn’t stomach it. Steve Shapiro, a federal employee, quit his job, enrolled in law school and filed his own lawsuit challenging the Maryland districts. His case is pending but Shapiro already has won an important 9-0 decision from the Supreme Court, assuring that redistricting challenges like his are entitled to a full review by special three-judge courts.

Meanwhile in Annapolis, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, is joining forces with Common Cause and other watchdog groups to push the proposal of a bipartisan study group to turn future redistricting in Maryland over to an impartial commission.

Hogan’s proposal, modeled after a citizens’ commission plan that has given California the nation’s most competitive House districts and is being considered in other states including battlegrounds Ohio and Virginia, was stalled by the Democrats who control in Maryland’s legislature.

The common denominator in these redistricting battles is the determination of reform-minded voters who see how polarization has hamstrung government and halted progress. Their success reminds us that individuals can still make a difference in our democracy.

Common Cause led the fight to create and then strengthen California’s impartial citizen commission and we’re lobbying in states across the country for similar plans. We’re standing up as plaintiffs against Republicans in the North Carolina case and in Maryland we’re supporting the efforts of both a Republican governor and courageous Democrat challenging his own party to advance fair districts.

Americans have had to stand up and correct the mistakes of power run amok throughout our history, and gerrymandering has been with us from the start. Politicians should compete for votes based on the strength of their character and ideas, not their ability to manipulate political boundaries.

Karen Hobert Flynn is President of Common Cause, a nonpartisan citizen-advocacy organization with 475,000 members and 35 state offices all working to create a democracy that works for everyone.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.