Americans must fight frightful despotism of gerrymandering

Americans must fight frightful despotism of gerrymandering
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The Supreme Court recently decided that gerrymandering is a political question that is not subject to federal court jurisdiction. In our republic, elected officials are generally permitted to draw their own districts, minimizing the influence of unfriendly voters by packing them into one district or spreading them thinly over many. Hyperpartisan lawmakers become entrenched because they are shielded from actual competition. The influence industry has learned how to operate within this system, mustering its resources to impede attempts at change. Voters become marginalized, resigned to elections whose winner is decided before a single vote is even cast. Without a resolution from the Supreme Court, Americans must now rectify this gross disenfranchisement by legislative action at the federal level and across the states still subject to this plague.

George Washington was famously averse to partisan politics. So in his farewell address, he wrote, “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” Nowhere in our modern era is this frightful despotism more evident than in the practice of partisan gerrymandering. As with many movements in our history, a significant effort on the part of the people will be necessary to combat this scourge.

On the federal level, there are bills to reduce the damaging effects of partisan gerrymandering. The John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act has been introduced during the last eight sessions of Congress. It would be a vast improvement over the current hodgepodge of partisan hackery. This proposal would create bipartisan committees of state legislators to draw districts, guided by strict rules prohibiting the use of partisan political data in their deliberations. The bill would also standardize requirements for the contiguity and compactness of districts, which are determined differently in each state. H.R. 1, the package of reforms introduced by House Democrats this year, would have instituted similar rules, and provide for commissions of citizens that include five Republicans, five Democrats, and five unaffiliated voters to draw districts.


The John Tanner legislation has died in committee each time it has been introduced because it has lacked adequate support among leadership to advance. H.R. 1 has regrettably been used as a messaging bill by the Democratic Party leadership, and it has created a political third rail that Republican members will not touch. A bill created entirely by Democrats is also very unlikely to be accepted by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has voiced his opposition to similar political reform bills. This stalemate demonstrates the necessity of state reform efforts, where grassroots organizations can more effectively organize to lobby their representatives until a truly bipartisan bill can gain traction in Congress.

At the state level, independent redistricting commissions have gained favor as an effective solution to the issue. In Virginia, a proposal now under consideration by the state legislature would be composed of four Republican and four Democratic state legislators and eight citizens who hold no legislative office. These citizens would be selected by a panel of retired federal judges from a list provided by the leaders of each party in the state legislature, which would preserve partisan balance. After the commission draws a map, a supermajority is required to pass the map on to the legislature, which may approve or reject the map but not amend it. Although the Virginia proposal does not include explicit rules against the use of partisan data, a bipartisan commission including citizens, with transparent proceedings, is indeed a massive step in the right direction.

While there are certainly other ways to achieve a fair legislative map, this is a solid example of what can be achieved when legislators and citizens cooperate for the common good. The Virginia measure had passed the legislature overwhelmingly this year, but must pass again next session to amend their constitution. Arizona, California, Idaho, and Washington all draw congressional districts through independent commissions, while Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah enacted reforms last year.

While this is an encouraging sign, we must harness this momentum to enact reform from one end of the continent to the other. In addition to the ongoing effort in Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are all considering major improvements this year. Every citizen concerned with the well being of our nation and the functioning of our government should actively support these measures by contacting legislators and signing petitions to place reforms on the ballot.

Attacking the issue on both the federal and state fronts will ensure that gerrymandering reform does not lose momentum in the coming years. Let us take the initiative and support efforts that help reverse the perverse incentives created by gerrymandering. If we do nothing, our nation will dangerously continue to strangle itself with a rope of partisan division.

Glenn Nye (@GlennNye) is the president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and a former United States representative from Virginia. Christopher Condon (@LibertasAeterna) is a research consultant for policy with the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.