Regular Americans can slay the gerrymander

Regular Americans can slay the gerrymander
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A quiet rising is happening.

In this rebellion, people carry not pitchforks, but smartphones and algorithms.

But make no mistake, they are out for blood. They’ve come to slay the gerrymander.

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While the nation’s high court dithers (a ruling on two cases is expected some time soon), exasperated voters are seizing whatever weapons are at hand — ballot initiatives, lawsuits, YouTube  mockery, mapping contests — to press the fight against blatant manipulation of election districts for partisan gain.

They see the damage done by bad maps. Name any woe of modern legislative politics — hyper-partisanship, gridlock, captivity to special interests, corruption. Gerrymandering is deeply implicated in all.

After the shock of 2016, many voters groped for a handhold on the gears of politics, a place where their activism could make a difference. Some landed upon gerrymandering.

Now you can see the difference they’re making. Last year, voters in Michigan, Colorado, Utah, Missouri and Ohio approved ballot initiatives to reform redistricting. Pushed from below, legislatures in Virginia and New Hampshire approved reforms. Voter lawsuits challenging partisan maps in Wisconsin (R), Maryland (D) and North Carolina (R) as unconstitutional won in federal courts. Appealed, they wait for the Roberts Court to stop playing prevent defense.

Suits filed in state courts in Pennsylvania and Michigan overturned maps done in 2011. Ohio just became the latest state where judges, getting a look inside the dark machinery of gerrymandering, said: No!

Of course, power never relinquishes power easily. Where voters have risen up to banish the gerrymander, incumbents have sought to welcome it back in, through appeals and bids to nullify the voters’ will.

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The political culture’s counterarguments settle into two main themes. As director of an anti-gerrymandering initiative in Pennsylvania, I’m familiar with the riffs. Allow me to summarize:

  • Our Founding Fathers (insert reverential pause here) placed the power to draw election boundaries explicitly in our, the incumbents’, hands. How dare anyone question the Founders’ infinite wisdom?
  • Even if it were allowed by our sacred charter, giving ordinary folks the job of making maps is impractical. This is complicated, nuanced work that can only be done by experts i.e. us (or the operatives we hire).

The first of these claims is (how shall I put it in this dignified space?) … balderdash.

And the second? Hogwash.

On Argument 1, here’s what the U.S. Constitution has to say: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.

See anything in there that says: When drawing election districts, lawmakers must hold the pen?

A big gap exists between “must” and “may,” one large enough to let in the fresh air of reform.

In 2012, lawmakers in Arizona sued to overturn a redistricting commission that the state’s voters had approved. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled states can set up any system they like for redistricting, including delegating the task to the non-elected.

Anyone who tells you otherwise needs a remedial course in constitutional law.

Now to deal with that second claim. (Pause for sigh.)

As the most self-interested people in the world, lawmakers are actually the last people we should let do the map-making.

Why? An election is a job interview.  

Do you know any boss who would let a job candidate set the terms for an interview: Let’s do it at my place, not yours.  And here’s a list of people I’m willing to be interviewed by. And a list of questions I’m willing to answer. And a list of the other candidates you’re allowed to interview. 

No boss in the world would put up with that. Yet isn’t that exactly what we, the voters, the bosses of democracy, do when we let incumbents dictate crucial terms of the interview known as an election: the shape of a district and the identities of the voters within it?

Anyone — anyonecan do a better job of drawing election maps.

This is not  an idle claim. In Pennsylvania, I lead a project that is proving the point with slam dunk force.

Draw the Lines PA puts into people’s hands a free, online mapping tool loaded with all the Census and election data they need to draw a valid congressional map of our state, one that reflects their values and common sense.

Given the chance, people are seizing it. We’ve held two mapping competitions, one last fall, one just ended. Overall, nearly 2,700 people tried their hand, working on more than 5,300 maps. Of those, 659 maps pleased their creators enough to be entered in the contest.

I’ve seen all 600-plus of them, and I can tell you that least 500 were clearly superior, by accepted metrics and by the eye test, to the infamous “Goofy kicks Donald Duck” map our Harrisburg politicians gave us in 2011. Even maps done by 14-year-olds easily cleared that bar.

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Many brain cells have been applied lately to devising a statistical method to determine when an election map has become over-the-top partisan.

That’s useful work — as long we let wildly self-interested people do this core task of democracy, we’ll need some guardrails.

But there’s a simpler, sounder path to slaying the gerrymander. It’s the path Draw the Lines PA is blazing, one any state can emulate:

For a change, try trusting We, the People.

Chris Satullo directs Draw the Lines PA (@drawthelinespa) for the Committee of Seventy, a PA good government group. He is former editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.