To Renew American Democracy, Eliminate Gerrymandering

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Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies

An acquaintance once related an illuminating conversation with an influential black member of Congress from New York. The congressman had seen the racial composition of his district shift from overwhelmingly black to majority black with a substantial presence of whites. Instead of bemoaning the political complications created by increased racial diversity, the congressman welcomed his new district lines. In his opinion, the trend toward black politicians representing homogeneously black districts undermined the development of a genuine interracial political culture and was unhealthy for democracy generally. While racially cohesive constituencies might make it easier to win election after election, he reasoned, the creation of overwhelmingly black districts contributed to a ghettoized politics and fostered racial demagogy.

So-called racial gerrymandering—the drawing of election districts to enhance the electoral prospects of black candidates—was initiated as a measure to strengthen racial fairness. Like most such “reforms,” it has both an upside and a downside. It has aided the election of thousands of black candidates in venues ranging from city councils to the House of Representatives. At the same time, racial gerrymandering has added a veneer of reformist legitimacy to a broader practice, political gerrymandering, that has had a noxious effect on American democracy.

A good, concise definition of gerrymandering is the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral constituency so as to favor one party or class. The tactic has a long and troubling history in U.S. politics. Under the federalist system, district lines for congressional and state legislative seats are decided at the state level, typically after each decennial census. In a few states, special, nonpartisan commissions have been tasked with drawing the district boundaries. Most states, however, leave these decisions to elected officials or their designated representatives. The results are often contorted districts designed to enhance the dominant party’s chances of retaining power for many years to come.

Before the age of computers, gerrymandering was a haphazard, unscientific process in which the two parties would reach a compromise that tended to protect incumbents on both sides from serious challenge. Since Democrats dominated politics in most states, gerrymandering favored Democratic officeholders. Republicans complained, but since the process frequently created safe districts for influential Republicans, the complaints weren’t all that loud.

There was a measure of corruption in all this, but it was a soft form of corruption in which political leaders scratched one another’s backs. Then came computer modeling and Republican domination of state legislatures. The Republicans proved to be a tougher and more focused breed. Ever more sophisticated computer technology enabled those responsible for drawing legislative boundary lines to create districts with unprecedented partisan precision. Whereas gerrymandering once meant moving around relatively large and somewhat heterogeneous communities to assist one party or another, the new computer models would look at voting patterns block by block, enabling the construction of districts that practically guaranteed one-party domination. Both parties took advantage of the latest tools, but Republicans did so in a more aggressive and thoroughgoing way.

Many of today’s legislative districts, especially in the House of Representatives, do not encompass communities, as Americans usually think of the term. Instead they aggregate groups of people who have the same skin color, the same level of wealth, the same biases, the same sorts of jobs, and, most importantly, very similar voting habits.

The result of all this can be seen right now in Washington, with the shutdown of the U.S. government, the collapse of bipartisanship even on issues of foreign policy and national security, and increasing dysfunction at the federal level.

To be sure, gerrymandering is but one of many factors that have brought the United States to its present condition. In the larger picture, the drawing of district lines is less important than various economic, demographic, and cultural trends that are changing the political landscape.

But gerrymandering is playing a part in all this. Because it creates congressional districts that are electorally secure for either the Republicans or Democrats, the primary election of the dominant party has in many places become far more important and more competitive than the general election. This in turn strengthens the extreme fringes—or, if you prefer, the bases—of each party while compelling the party mainstream to move toward the margins or risk a primary challenge. Thus while a number of Republican House members are privately unhappy with the Tea Party movement’s rigid stance on the government shutdown, most have declined to make their objections public for fear that they could be exposed to criticism in the next Republican primary contest. We are left with a system that is increasingly hostile to bipartisanship, compromise, pragmatism, and intraparty dissent.

The United States will likely weather the government shutdown. But those who still care about America’s image as a beacon of freedom for the world should regard the current condition of U.S. democracy with the utmost concern. The shutdown has already undercut America’s diplomatic stature. More to the point, it is raising doubts among allies and giving comfort to democracy’s adversaries. The latter are predictably arguing that a country that can’t keep its government functioning is not an appropriate model for other societies, particularly in the developing world.

The problems that afflict American democracy will take some time to sort out. Rolling back the regime of gerrymandering will not restore the country to a mythical era of bipartisan comity. But it will move things in the right direction by reducing the influence of the extremes and compelling elected officials to consider the opinions of people with different needs, values, and backgrounds. Moreover, gerrymandering is quite vulnerable to reform, as has been shown by the states that have depoliticized the redistricting process. When emotions simmer down and Americans begin to ponder how their democracy can be improved, the elimination of gerrymandering should rank high on the agenda.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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