The greatest threat to our democracy does not reside in the White House
It’s been over three months since the Electoral College confirmed Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States, putting an end to a stream of election hijinks and threats.
The importance of this election was most apparent with over 100 million people voting early and over two-thirds of eligible voters participating, the highest percentage since 1900. What got lost during this election season amidst the COVID-19 chaos is the decennial census. The results of the census will lead to a reallocation of each state’s number of congressional seats and a redrawing of congressional and state House district maps.
How are congressional maps drawn? In 33 states, state legislatures draw congressional as well as state House district maps, with most allowing for gubernatorial veto power. The party that holds the state legislature majority can draw maps that favor their party, resulting in more elected members in Congress and state Houses. With veto power, governors have the final say in adopted maps. Just a handful of states use independent commissions, allowing for the possibility of fair maps.
Last year’s campaign rarely mentioned gerrymandering, yet it presents the greatest threat to our nation’s democracy. Gerrymandering allows political parties to select their voters rather than allowing voters to elect their representatives. Gerrymandering techniques include packing voters who support one party into a small number of districts so their overall representation is limited, or cracking such voters across multiple districts so that they lack sufficient weight to elect their preferred candidates. Both techniques are at the heart of how gerrymandering is conducted and how elected politicians retain their grip on power.
The Cook Political Report rated 86 percent of the recent election’s congressional races as “solid” or “likely” for one of the candidates, with 27 races without even a major party candidate running against the favored incumbent. It indicated that just 26 races were “toss-ups,” with only 19 states represented among these competitive House seats. This means that in 31 states, every congressional seat in the state had a clear favorite. Moreover, Democrat representative candidates garnered over 4 million more votes than their Republican counterparts, yet the Republicans had a net gain of seats. When representatives do not need to work to serve the interests of their constituents, they can focus their attention on serving the interests of their party and, in extreme cases, their personal interests.
Gerrymandered maps drawn by state legislatures are also now easier to identify and communicate to the public. Advances in optimization algorithms and artificial intelligence make it possible to create hundreds of maps in a matter of minutes on a laptop computer and provide a fairness score card for each map, based on state-specific requirements like population balance, contiguity, geographic compactness and preserving communities of interest. These same algorithmic tools also provide a mechanism to evaluate any maps put forward by state legislatures, creating a transparent environment to expose and eliminate gerrymandering.
With the 2020 election now behind us, it is imperative that voters turn their attention to addressing the persistent and egregious spread of gerrymandering. Often the minority party in a state is most interested in doing away with gerrymandering. The Republican minority in Illinois and several Northeastern states, and the Democrat minority in Texas and numerous Midwest states, are such examples. Unfortunately, when the minority party gains majority status, their fight against gerrymandering often vanishes, hoping to leverage the benefits of their new found majority status. Virginia is a case in point for such a flip-flop.
What can voters do to expose and eliminate gerrymandering and ensure elections that protect democracy and the interests of the people?
Organizations like the League of Women Voters advocate for and hold events to support the elimination of gerrymandering. When state and federal representatives hold public events, these organizations work to get the topic on their agenda and ask them to acknowledge in public their support of independent commissions for drawing state House and congressional maps. Signing petitions and supporting state constitution amendments requiring independent commissions are effective mechanisms to suppress gerrymandering. Though each of these efforts alone are not likely to produce immediate change, they likely will collectively wear down the status quo and move states towards adopting independent commissions.
Although any such efforts will likely have a limited effect in 2021 when state House and congressional districts are redrawn, efforts today will bear fruit in the coming decade as we move towards 2031 and beyond. The time to begin such effort is today. Voters deserve better than what the political process is offering them. Most importantly, our nation and our democratic process demands it.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He uses his expertise in data-driven risk analysis to inform issues in public health and public policy. He is the founding director of the Institute for Computational Redistricting at the University of Illinois, committed to bringing transparency to the redistricting process using optimization algorithms and artificial intelligence.