A republic, if we can keep it

This Tuesday, attorneys argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that partisan gerrymandering essentially strips Americans of their right to vote; specifically, voters in North Carolina and Maryland contend that political gerrymanders by state legislatures abridge their First Amendment rights by making it far more burdensome to organize and exercise political speech.

Regardless of what the justices decide in these cases, we must not lose sight of the fundamental issue: partisan gerrymandering is wrong; it robs us of our fundamental right to freely express our political will. It is not enough to wait and hope for nine judges to opine on the matter: we, the people, must strongly advocate for a system by which voters choose their representatives, not vice versa. Fortunately, there are groups around the country that are championing the cause and have begun to win important victories at the grassroots level.

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Although gerrymandering reform advocates recently have been optimistic regarding a victory in the Supreme Court, the outlook for a panacea seems bleak. In 2004, four conservative justices argued that it was beyond the court’s jurisdiction to interfere in the drawing of legislative boundaries. Swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy disagreed but still voted with the conservative wing, and called upon future litigants to demonstrate to his satisfaction that partisan gerrymandering robbed them of fair representation.

The court did not take up another major case in this vein for over a decade, but advocates continued to prepare evidence to convince Kennedy. In two cases argued last year, they showed how the Wisconsin State Legislature drew electoral boundaries in order to maximize votes wasted by Democratic voters and that Republican legislators in North Carolina packed Democratic voters into some districts and spread them thinly over others to dilute their votes. Despite arguments written with the swing justice in mind, the court did not make a substantive ruling to resolve the matter. With the subsequent retirement of Justice Kennedy and a resurgent conservative majority on the bench, there is even less hope that reform advocates will receive the silver bullet they hope for this term.

Even if the court does not strike down political gerrymandering this term, nine justices should not be expected to safeguard our political rights on their own. Just as countless others have done in generations past, we must take up the banner and fight for them ourselves. Suffrage is sacred in America; it is part of the indelible contract by which government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. The Founders would be shocked to discover the extent to which representatives now choose the voters they prefer, and certainly would not countenance the manipulation of constituencies for partisan benefit rather than the national interest. Benjamin Franklin once quipped when asked what sort of government America was to have at the close of the Constitutional Convention: “A republic, if you can keep it.” We must now do just that.

The people exercise supreme power over the actions of their legislatures, and many are beginning to recognize the unfairness of the system as it stands. In 2018 alone, voters in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah championed reform to their states’ unfair redistricting processes. State-level efforts have been gaining steam for years, and with the addition of the aforementioned five, nine states now conduct redistricting through independent commissions rather than partisan state legislatures. If enough citizens nationwide came to the same realization as voters in these states and demanded reform, members of state legislatures and Congress alike would have no choice but to act.

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In a system that benefits politicians in power so heavily, it will take no less than a massive groundswell of popular demand for fairness and political equality to fix the system. The Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress convened the Commission on Civility and Effective Governance, which has developed a report, “Political Reform: Fixing a Deadlocked System.” Therein, we evaluate multiple ways citizens and governments alike can resolve crises such as political gerrymandering, and discuss multiple movements that have made effective use of these strategies. We hope that their work will inspire the nation to push forward in this critical and ongoing struggle.

Gerrymandering is a hubristic act by those in political power who seek to pull the wool over the eyes of the electorate. By packing unfriendly voters into one district and/or spreading them thinly across many, votes of the political minority are treated as a nuisance rather than a part of the political process. When legislators have thoroughly disenfranchised voters of the opposition, they sit comfortably in their seats until they face a primary challenge from within their own party. They then become more extreme in their legislative posture to guard against challenges from the ideological wings. This means that abusive redistricting not only disenfranchises the political minority but also encourages elected officials to eschew compromise in favor of extreme polarization.

If Americans wish to revive the spirit of commonsense governance and ensure political equality for all, we must not sit idly by and wait for a knight in shining armor; the fate of the republic is in our hands.

Former U.S. Rep. Glenn Nye is the president and CEO of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Follow him on Twitter @GlennNye.

Christopher Condon is a research consultant at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress. Follow him on Twitter @LibertasAeterna.