Obama's right to tackle redistricting, but it won't be easy
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This year's election has been a long and frustrating slog, in large part because Republican primary voters nominated Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE, a character whose positions, words, and behaviors are nothing short of frightening.

When the election finally ends, voters will naturally want — and deserve — a break from all the campaigning. But in this age of hyperpolarization, when powerful organizations are pushing the Republican Party ever farther to the right, there will be no break from politics in Washington.

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Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Another recession could hit US in 2019, says credit union association chief R-E-S-P-E-C-T: One legacy of Franklin and McCain is up to us MORE's (R-Ariz.) recent statement that Republicans will oppose any Supreme Court Justice that a President Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton: FBI investigation into Kavanaugh could be done quickly Hillary Clinton urges Americans to 'check and reject' Trump's 'authoritarian tendencies' by voting in midterms EXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency MORE might nominate is a sign of the far-right partisanship ahead.

This is why the recent announcement that President Obama will spend some of his post-presidential energy leading a national effort to fix America's election district lines is both a welcome step forward and, perhaps, too small to matter.

This is a bold step. In recent decades, former presidents have rarely been active in domestic affairs. Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Getting politics out of the pit Kavanaugh and the 'boys will be boys' sentiment is a poor excuse for bad behavior MORE, for example, built his foundation to focus on people in need around the world. And George W. Bush has been very low-profile — his post-presidency has been known mostly for his paintings.

But Obama realizes that, no matter what the outcome on Election Day this November, there will still be fundamental problems plaguing American democracy, and preventing majority rule.

As congressional Democrats know all too well, district boundary lines are important.

Partisan gerrymandering can and does mean that in many states, one party can win a majority of votes cast for Congress or their state legislatures, but still not win a majority of seats in any of those bodies.

These lines are perfectly legal, which is why Americans have tended to forget how immoral they are, and how offensive such results should be to the core principles of democracy.

In recent years, though, partisan gerrymandering has gotten much worse. The detailed voter databases and state-of-the-art mapping techniques used — mostly by Republicans — in 2011 make the gerrymandering of the past look like quaint tinkering.

The impacts are significant. In 2012, for example, Democrats nationwide received over 1 million more votes for Congress than Republicans did, but Republicans retained control of the body.

New district lines exacerbate hyper-partisanship, since they empower right-wing groups like the Koch network-funded Americans for Prosperity who stand ready to punish Republicans who step out of line.

For incumbents, twisted district lines can make the threat of losing to a primary challenger more worrisome than threat of an opponent from the other party. Under those circumstances, acts of bipartisanship can be political suicide.

For all these reasons, a focus on redistricting is a good start — but also insufficient.

The new election maps of 2021 will be determined by the answers to two questions.

The first question is: What kinds of maps will be acceptable under the law?

Individual state constitutions, ballot initiatives, and laws combine with federal law and Supreme Court rulings to govern the range of possible outcomes. As a result, in some cases, ballot initiatives in 2018 or 2020 could make a difference.

Yet there is an important caveat. Ballot initiatives ought to be carefully constructed, since it is not always clear that, for example, nonpartisan commissions do a better job of redistricting than elected officials.

Jurisprudence matters too, and advocates and researchers should prepare carefully for legal battles to come — and work hard to ensure that the Supreme Court has a full compliment of nine members.

With both ballot initiatives and legal strategies, the devil is in the details, and there is room for more research here. A focus on reducing the number of wasted votes to ensure that the percentage of total legislative seats a party gets is roughly the same as the percentage of the statewide vote that a party wins is a reasonable standard to consider.

Still, ballot initiatives and legal strategies will only go so far.

The key question for the next set of election boundaries is this: who will decide?

In 2018 and 2020, elections will determine whether Democrats or Republicans run redistricting processes in individual states, or if the two parties split control. (In a small number of cases, ostensibly nonpartisan bodies may control redistricting, but even in those bodies, claims of neutrality can be overstated).

The problem with an effort that is limited to district lines is that voters almost never rank such lines near the top of their list of concerns. Few large membership organizations prioritize election rules, because their members rarely do.

If Democrats and progressives want to more clout in redistricting, talking about redistricting can only help up to a point. Instead, they will need to invest in disciplined organization-building, focus on keeping their coalition together, talk about issues that resonate with voters, and get it out to the polls in significant numbers in 2018.

This is why President Obama's decision to begin to invest in this work is promising, but also why it will need to grow in scope and depth if it is to succeed.

Generally, midterm elections rarely go well for the party of the president. For Democrats, then, if Hillary Clinton wins, organizing for down-ballot victory in 2018 will be a heavy lift indeed.

Green is executive director of the Scholars Strategy Network​.


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