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To help put an end to dysfunctional politics, we must stop gerrymandering

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What if we told you America has an electoral system where politicians got to choose their voters? You’d probably think we had it backwards, since what we were taught in school about basic American democracy was that every citizen has one vote to choose who represents us. The sad truth is that because of a practice called gerrymandering, politicians and political parties have more influence on who gets to represent us than we the voters do. 

Following the U.S. Census, which happens every ten years, states redraw their congressional and state legislative voting maps in a process called redistricting. Gerrymandering occurs when political parties are in control of this process. Democrats and Republicans have every incentive to draw district lines that give their political party an advantage in elections for the next decade. 

Gerrymandering is one of the root causes of our dysfunctional politics. By minimizing the number of competitive districts, elections are decided in primaries. As a result, Americans have fewer choices, and candidates become more and more extreme. Gerrymandering affects all American voters, but it’s especially bad for voters in non-majority demographic groups.

As our politics has become more partisan and extreme, so has gerrymandering. This past redistricting cycle, both political parties gerrymandered to the greatest extent possible. Recently, New York’s Court of Appeals rejected maps drawn by Democrats that tilted the district map lines heavily in their favor. Similarly, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected maps drawn by Republicans that advantaged Republicans. 

Rampant gerrymandering continues to happen because it’s legal in most states. There are a couple key strategies politicians use to draw map lines that maximize the votes for candidates of their party and ensure their opponents get as few as possible. One is packing — drawing lines that put as many of their opponent’s registered party members as possible into one district; and cracking — breaking voters of the other party into as many different districts as possible to dilute their vote. 

Gerrymandering violates the basic premise that each state and congressional district ought to represent all the people who live there. When successful, the party that draws the lines can more or less guarantee they’ll hold onto power for the next ten years. 

So, who wins and loses? 

Politicians, party bosses and lobbyists win. The rest of us — the whole country — loses. Because gerrymandering essentially guarantees “safe” seats for a party, our elected representatives have far less incentive to represent all the people in their districts and the collective interest. The less energy that has to be expended to listen to every voter, the more time can be dedicated to the party base and to the lobbyists and special interest groups who contribute to their campaigns. This distorted process serves to increase destructive political polarization and creates gridlock in our legislatures. 

What can be done? 

First, we must go back to basics and set commonsense redistricting guidelines. Districts should be as compact and competitive as possible, while attempting to keep communities together. 

Second, we need to take the power to draw districts away from self-interested partisan legislators and put it in the hands of independent commissions. These commissions work best when they have complete transparency, their members come from across the political spectrum, and they abide by strict criteria to ensure fair and accurate representation for all voters. 

Independent redistricting commissions work. Seven states currently use independent commissions to draw congressional and state districts, while two other states use them for state level districts only. This approach has proven to be even handed and tends to avoid the extended time required to fight the process in court or have a judge appoint an impartial mapmaker to draw the lines of constituency. 

Third, as citizens, we need to be more involved in our communities. We need to support local efforts to require citizen engagement in the redistricting process, and demand answers to problems we all share, regardless of political affiliation. Each of us has preferred policy solutions, but we all have an interest in making our government work rather than letting politicians rig it. 

States are in charge of drawing district lines, not the federal government. That means we can fix this process problem without passing a federal law. We can pass local initiatives ourselves in the states and communities we live in that gives everyone in the neighborhoods the opportunity to be heard.   

If we want a fair electoral system, we must insist on the adoption of these reforms. The best way to ensure a fair distribution of power is to build sufficient public momentum that voters cannot be ignored. Call or write your elected representatives and demand reform. Together, we can end gerrymandering. 

The Honorable Sean O’Keefe is the 69th Secretary of the Navy, university professor, and co-chair of Count Every Hero, a group of veterans and citizens dedicated to protecting democracy, fighting corruption, and reforming our electoral system.

Tags Gerrymandering redistricting

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