Opinion | Campaign

Gerrymandering: Why only 2 percent of Americans feel elections work properly

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The launch of the Grassroots Redistricting Project and federal judges' recent move to rule Michigan gerrymandering unconstitutional are the latest in a string of events that show partisan gerrymandering has become a major issue. Courts have long held that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but they've been reluctant to rule against partisan gerrymandering for fear of meddling in political matters. As former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, I have witnessed first hand how partisan politicians redraw the political boundary lines and pick their voters, instead of the other way around. We must work across the aisle to pass comprehensive election reform and ensure that our electoral systems are working for the people.

Republicans have had a distinct electoral edge over Democrats since they redrew state legislative and congressional maps in 2011. A recent report by the Associated Press shows that this advantage has persisted - in 2018, Democrats could have won up to 16 more congressional seats and flipped seven additional state legislative chambers. What should have been an even bigger blue wave crashed against the well-constructed wall of gerrymandering.

According to a recent open-ended survey conducted by Avalanche Strategy and Change Research, voters across partisan lines feel that their right to participate in our democracy fairly is not being adequately protected. At a time when confidence in our democracy is faltering among Americans of all political persuasions, we must address voting rights and gerrymandering in a bipartisan way if we have any hope of preserving faith in our institutions.

According to the study, only 2 percent of Americans say American elections work all of the time. It also found that fighting gerrymandering and corruption has bipartisan support, with 82 percent of Americans saying they are concerned with the corruption of the system, and believe gerrymandering is undemocratic and should be illegal.

Across the country, people noticed what happened when Republicans drew the maps in 2010. After riding a midterm wave into power that gave them substantial control over the nation's redistricting process, Republican legislatures and governors used this power to ensure long-lasting Republican majorities and diminish the voting impact of Democrats and minorities.

The result was immediate: In 2012, 1.4 million more Americans voted for Democrats than Republicans for Congress, but Republicans won a 33-seat majority. And the problem hasn't gotten better. In 2016, despite failing to win a majority of all votes for Congress, Republicans again won a 33-seat majority.

This pattern is reflected at the state level as well. In many battleground states, there is a huge disparity between the party makeup of state legislatures and the popular vote for those seats.

Just look at Wisconsin, a quintessential battleground where races are often decided by only a few percentage points. In 2012, Republicans won 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly despite winning only 48.6 percent of the two party state-wide vote. In 2014, they won 63 seats with only 52 percent of the statewide vote. That's a disproportionate outcome for a state like Wisconsin, where statewide elections are very close and voters for both major parties are fairly evenly spread across the state.

And in North Carolina, the AP report found that Republicans won somewhere between two and three more congressional seats than they should have. Republicans hold a 9-to-3 congressional seat advantage over Democrats in North Carolina after the 2018 midterms, even though Republicans only led Democrats 51 percent to 49 percent in the statewide popular vote. It is clear that in states across the country, rigged maps are skewing elections toward Republicans.   

The policies enacted by officeholders who were elected due to gerrymandering - like taking health-care services away from women, denying people of color the right to vote, exacerbating climate change and enabling gun violence - have very real consequences for their constituents. Most voters want to see dramatic change in all those areas and across numerous other issues, but when their elected officials let them down, gerrymandering ensures there's little most voters can do about it. 

Republicans rigged the system in 2010, and data continues to underscore the need for a comprehensive redistricting strategy that gives political power back to voters and ensures they get to pick their politicians - not the other way around. Our leaders should take a close look at why so many Americans feel our elections are not working the way they should, and work across the aisle to pass comprehensive election reform that enjoys the same level of bipartisan support that protecting our democracy does.

Lon Johnson is the CEO of WaterWorks Fund and is a former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.

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