Voters, not politicians, must defeat gerrymandering

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A tectonic shift is underway in America’s political landscape. Disgusted by decades of dysfunction in Washington, voters – led by younger generations – are abandoning the parties and moving from political disaffection to political action.

Midterm elections often hand a defeat to the president’s party, but something deeper was felt in 2018 beyond the predictable swing of the political pendulum. In many states people from the left, right and center defied the labels of political tribalism and joined together to defeat one of the greatest ills of our democracy: gerrymandering.

{mosads}It is an obvious conflict of interest to allow politicians to draw the lines of their own election districts. In 1984 President Reagan called political gerrymandering “antidemocratic”, “un-American” and “a national disgrace,” but 34 years later courts and legislatures have largely failed to provide a remedy.

So in 2018, people in Utah, Missouri, Michigan and Colorado went to the ballot box to prohibit gerrymandering in their states with the power of their vote. Using direct democracy, the four states each empowered independent redistricting commissions or nonpartisan demographers to take the power of drawing voting districts away from the politicians, political parties, and special interests and gave it back to the people, where it belongs. 

Never before have so many states simultaneously enacted cures to gerrymandering – and with the decennial census still two years away, the number will grow. States as politically and geographically distinct as Maryland, Texas, Virginia and Oregon are now calling for independent redistricting commissions, and an end to gerrymandering, in their states. The people want change. 

Arizona and California led the way by terminating gerrymandering once and for all through the creation of independent legislative and congressional redistricting commissions. The results were staggering.  In California, for example, 265 congressional elections were held between 2002 and 2010, before the reforms were implemented. In that time only one district changed party hands.

In 2012, the first year elections were held under California’s independently drawn maps, 14 of 53 congressional representatives lost or chose not to run – a turnover rate of 26 percent. Not surprisingly, California voters found they could hold politicians more accountable where districts have been fairly drawn.

Also shared by Utah, Missouri, Michigan and Colorado, California and Arizona are open primary elections which welcome participation from all voters regardless of party affiliation. The one-two punch of fair districts drawn by independent redistricting commissions, plus open primaries, makes elections fairer and more competitive. Together they serve as a barrier to extreme candidates at the fringes of their parties from advancing through closed primaries and getting elected in a district safely held by their party – despite their lack of support among the majority of voters.

Perhaps as important as these reforms are is who is making them happen, and what that means for the two major parties. Michigan’s winning campaign to establish an independent redistricting commission was a non-partisan effort led by regular citizens without any political campaign experience. They won 61 percent of the vote and almost every county (67 of 83), whether “red” or “blue,” in the state. 

The changes to Colorado’s constitution prohibiting gerrymandering were carried to victory by a wave of independent voters. These independents, who declined to join any party, cast more ballots than either Republican or Democratic voters for the first time in state’s history in 2018. And the wave is growing. Of Colorado voters under the age of 25, 51 percent are independents.

Colorado is not alone. According to a recent Gallup survey, independents have grown from 35 percent of the nation’s electorate in 1990 to 42 percent in 2018. Neither the Republicans nor Democrats muster greater than 29 percent in the same survey. 

A growing majority of Americans recognize that the casualty in our intensifying partisan battle is our democracy. Polls consistently point to fixing our government’s dysfunction as a top priority of voters. People are calling upon politicians to lay down their arms and find solutions to the major problems facing our nation.

To this new political majority, “principled compromise” is not a derogatory phrase, it is a mandate to govern. The parties need to adapt to remain relevant. If they do not, the flight will continue. Fortunately, fair districts and open primaries empower the majority over the loud minority allowing elected officials to govern without fear of being dealt losses by those at the extreme edges of their party.

The first three words of our Constitution are not “We, the politicians.” They are “We, the people.” In our 2018 midterm elections, the people in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah joined Arizona, California and other states in making important reforms to take back their democracy. Each of these states provides a unique roadmap to achieving success at the ballot box. Let’s learn from these victories, build upon them, and terminate gerrymandering in all states before the next set of redistricting maps are drawn after the 2020 census. 

Fahey is executive director of Voters Not Politicians Michigan, Schwarzenegger is former governor of California and Thiry is CEO of DaVita and co-chair of Fair Maps Colorado.


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