US voters tackle gerrymandering with gusto. Incumbents are less sure.

Keith Srakocic/AP
William Marx points to projected images of the old congressional districts of Pennsylvania on top and the new redrawn districts on the bottom, while standing in the classroom where he teaches civics in Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, 2018. Mr. Marx was a plaintiff in the Pennsylvania lawsuit that successfully challenged the Republican-drawn congressional maps. Marx said he believes the new district boundaries resulted in 'a more fair congressional representation of the will of the people in Pennsylvania.'

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

Attempts to gain political advantage through “creative mapmaking” date back to the early 19th century. And there is skepticism, says Ohio State law professor Daniel Tokaji, about whether gerrymandering causes dissatisfaction and polarization – or just exacerbates it. However, the speed at which technology has helped partisans create surgically precise maps took the country by surprise. Voters in Michigan, Arizona, and Utah were among those seeking greater fairness at the ballot in November. In Jefferson City, Mo., a new state demographer’s office is opening, tasked by voters with drawing competitive state legislative districts. While the initiative faces pushback from the Republican governor and legislators, the hope is that the office may be able to infuse a greater sense of impartiality – and perhaps check partisan passions. “It is a pitchfork moment,” says voting rights expert Michael Li. “People [on both sides of the aisle] don’t like the political class, they think the system is rigged, and they see the way districts are drawn as a big part of that. Ten years ago voters responded to words like gerrymander and redistricting with ‘Bleh.’ Now when you canvass door to door and mention [reform], they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

Why We Wrote This

Gerrymandering used to be the province mostly of spelling bee contestants and policy wonks. But for many today, redistricting reform has become a fundamental struggle for fairness.

As the United States grapples with intense tribal alliances that have seeped into the electoral system, Missouri voters contributed to a banner year for redistricting reform across the country.

The reforms range from Florida, where more than 1 million former felons regained the right to vote, to Michigan, where a citizens’ commission is now tasked with drawing districts. Many are aimed at “removing the interests of incumbents,” University of Missouri political scientist Peverill Squire writes in an email.

In Jefferson City, Mo., a new state demographer’s office is opening, tasked by voters with drawing competitive state legislative districts to calibrate the Constitution’s “one person, one vote” guarantee.

Why We Wrote This

Gerrymandering used to be the province mostly of spelling bee contestants and policy wonks. But for many today, redistricting reform has become a fundamental struggle for fairness.

Contrasted with partisan map-drawing that creates fantastical district shapes – dubbed the gerrymander in the early 1800s – having a nonpartisan social scientist draw electoral maps “sounds like the way things should be done, based on population size, contiguity of blocks of people, and to avoid these weird fractal geometries that a lot of districts end up looking like,” notes Corey Sparks, a demographer at the University of Texas in San Antonio. “Demographers don’t need to cook the data and cook the demography so they will get reelected.”

Given powerful data and mapping tools available to demographers today, the actual task of precisely dividing citizens into competitive districts shouldn’t be much harder than a graduate level homework assignment, mapmakers say.

Yet it can be a treacherous legal landscape – rived by race, party, gender, and other “communities of interest.”

At the same time, the pulse of reform is fueled by a heightened recognition among many Americans that partisans are “standing over the body [of democracy] with a gun in their hand,” says voting rights expert Michael Li. That means the fight against gerrymandering and the power of incumbency has for many Americans become a fundamental political struggle.

“It is a pitchfork moment,” says Mr. Li, a lawyer at the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. “People [on both sides of the aisle] don’t like the political class, they think the system is rigged, and they see the way districts are drawn as a big part of that. Ten years ago voters responded to words like gerrymander and redistricting with ‘Bleh.’ Now when you canvass door to door and mention [reform], they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

The issue is once again returning to the country’s highest court. The US Supreme Court last Friday took up partisan gerrymandering cases for the second term in a row, this time from North Carolina and Maryland. Lower courts have ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution. But with the retirement of swing Justice Anthony Kennedy, the conservative-leaning court may choose to reverse those decisions and rule that it is not expressly barred by the Constitution.

Modern efficiencies

The practice of trying to gain political advantage through “creative mapmaking,” as Mr. Sparks calls it, dates back to the early 19th century.

And there is skepticism, says Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State law professor, about whether the gerrymander causes dissatisfaction and polarization – or just exacerbates it. Also, the last election, in which Democrats took control of the House, proved that even heavily gerrymandered districts can be overcome by turnout.

However, the speed at which technology joined partisanship to create surgically precise maps took the country by surprise.

“Gerrymandering is not new, but the technology that creates incredible efficiencies at which it can be engineered is pretty new,” says demographer Mark Fossett at Texas A&M University in College Station. The year “2000 is a watershed. By 2010 it is an art form.”

States from Republican-dominated Missouri to Democrat-led Maryland embraced partisan gerrymandering with near glee, creating wild dragon-head shapes aimed at a desired outcome. Lower federal courts found that North Carolina Republicans used “surgical precision” to target minorities when drawing maps, creating bulwarks out of boundaries. (The legality of racial gerrymandering is not up for discussion in the courts: It is always unconstitutional.)

The impacts have been dramatic – and measurable.

In November, Republicans in North Carolina won 10 of 13 congressional seats, despite winning the popular vote by less than 1 percent. After courts hired a nonpartisan mapmaker to redraw gerrymandered maps in Pennsylvania earlier this year, a GOP advantage in the Keystone State of 13 to five congressional seats fell to nine to nine. There, Democrats won 54 percent of the popular vote.

An Associated Press analysis of “efficiency gaps” that measures partisan advantage suggested that in the last election, under non-gerrymandered maps, Democrats would likely have gained even more than the 40 seats in Congress that they did.

Incumbent resistance to reform

Moves by incumbent politicians to limit the power of voters isn’t limited to the gerrymander. In Georgia, Republican Gov.-elect Brian Kemp refused to recuse himself from his secretary of State job, essentially becoming the referee of his own election. Three days before the election, Mr. Kemp made unfounded accusations of electoral fraud against Democrats on the secretary of State’s website. He won by the narrowest margin since 1966. Meanwhile, all 13 of Georgia’s statewide offices are held by Republicans.

Since the election, Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Michigan pushed to curb the power of incoming Democratic governors. And the Florida ballot initiative passed by 65 percent of voters to give the right to vote back to felons (except for those convicted of murder or a sexual crime) is in flux. Under the terms, people should be able to register to vote this week, and the 68 counties have said they will begin registering former offenders. But the new governor has suggested additional legislation would be required and could not be put in place until March at the earliest. More than a million votes are at stake.

The impulse to question voters’ wishes could affect the new Missouri state demographer as well. Missouri Gov. Mike Parsons, a Republican, suggested to The Associated Press that organizations with “deep pockets” and “their own agendas” are behind the voter initiatives. And Missouri Senate president pro tem Dave Schatz said the legislature will look into the legality of the new law. He noted that “there’s a lot more to [the reform initiative] than what the standard person can understand.” Notably, some black lawmakers in the state agree, saying that they are worried about losing seats if the maps become less partisan.

Such incumbent resistance to reform proves “why voters are up in arms,” says Ohio State's Professor Tokaji, author of “Election Law in a Nutshell.” “When you’ve got a political system in which there’s virtually no bipartisan compromise, partisan gerrymandering really means that people who are affiliated with the minority party have zero power.”

In response, some states have established nonpartisan commissions, including California and Washington. But notable this year is that voters in conservative states like Missouri and Utah have joined the reform effort. Sixty-two percent of Missouri voters adopted the Clean Missouri Initiative, a raft of electoral reforms that included the new demographer's job.

Greater sense of fairness

That margin is notable in a year in which Missouri voters ousted a centrist, Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill, in the same election. “The stakes [are] so much higher now given that there ... are almost no moderates left,” says Tokaji.

Practically, “the impact [of new maps] ... will likely make only a marginal difference in state legislative election outcomes because of the way Democrats and Republicans are distributed around the state,” says Mr. Squire, the Missouri demographer. Voters have sorted themselves, with Democrats congregating in cities and suburbs, while Republicans remain in rural areas. “[Those] patterns will limit the ability to draw more competitive districts except in a few places, mostly in the suburbs outside Kansas City and St. Louis.”

Nevertheless, the state demographer’s office may be able to infuse a greater sense of fairness – and perhaps check partisan passions.

“If you gerrymander, then everything becomes about the primaries, and that drives [politicians] to extremes so that they don’t even get primaried,” says Professor Fossett. “The corrosiveness is that it just turns people into total partisans because they never are faced with having to recognize the concerns of others.”

Conversely, he says, more compact and competitive districts tend to strengthen community bonds given “the presumption that people who live close together share common concerns on a variety of things – from the economy to exposure to hazards like drought and tornadoes. They will have more things in common that are not necessarily partisan in nature.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to US voters tackle gerrymandering with gusto. Incumbents are less sure.
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2019/0110/US-voters-tackle-gerrymandering-with-gusto.-Incumbents-are-less-sure
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe