Why you should care
Because gerrymandering is a major culprit in congressional dysfunction.
While all eyes in the political world are on the Supreme Court as it considers a Wisconsin case that tests the role of partisan politics in drawing congressional district lines, there’s a flurry of action on the issue unfolding just across the street at the U.S. Capitol.
A handful of Democrats, even ones from states where their party has benefited from partisan gerrymandering, are pushing an array of proposals — from having independent commissions handle it to stacking several members in larger districts — that would allow Congress to drastically change how the nation’s House members are elected.
To understand the problem of gerrymandering that these proposals hope to tackle, you have to look no further than the two states that neighbor the nation’s capital. In Maryland, then–Gov. Martin O’Malley and Democrats in the legislature reworked the state’s congressional maps in 2011 to boot long-serving Republican Roscoe Bartlett out of office. It worked. In 2012, he lost to Democrat John Delaney.
American democracy needs a new engine
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.)
Now travel with me across the Potomac. Virginia is represented by two Democratic U.S. senators and a Democratic governor, and voters there supported the last two Democratic U.S. presidential candidates. But until last week, Republicans were controlling the state legislature — and so also drawing the maps. Democrats now hold only a slender majority there. And in the U.S. House, the Democratic-leaning state is represented by only four Democrats and seven Republicans. That doesn’t pass the smell test for many Democrats, who argue the whole system needs to be overhauled.
“You know if your car isn’t working right, you don’t need a new message; you need a new car,” freshman Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said at a recent news conference at the Capitol. “And if your engine’s not working, you don’t need a new message; you need a new engine. And American democracy needs a new engine.”
He recognizes that Democrats in states like his also played politics with redistricting, which is why he’s pushing a proposal to turn the way the nation picks its lawmakers in the lower chamber on its head. Raskin is teaming up with Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Don Beyer (D-Va.) on the Fair Representation Act, under which an independent commission would draw the lines. But their proposal goes further, requiring ranked choice voting. Voters would be given a list of candidates from both parties, and they’d then vote for their top three choices. If a politician fails to garner enough support, he or she gets knocked out, and the voter’s second and third choices become more important. The lawmakers also want to end most single-district seats and instead have from three to five lawmakers representing a single seat, which they argue will force politicians to run to the middle to appeal to a broad array of voters and not just the extremes in both parties.
“Frustration with our [country’s] current brand of politics is at a tipping point,” Beyer said at a recent news conference, citing low approval ratings for Congress. “A big reason for this is the incredible polarization.”
Less radical proposals are also floating around Congress. Close to 50 House Democrats are pushing the Redistricting Reform Act of 2017, sponsored by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). That act would require every state to establish a multiparty, independent redistricting commission that would also aim to end the bipartisan practice of drawing congressional districts that zig and zag through certain towns and counties in order to lock certain voters out.
Look at the nation’s biggest state, California, to see what some of these changes could mean. California now requires an independent commission to draw congressional lines, leaving the state with a couple of the most competitive races in the nation, including Democratic Rep. Ami Bera’s Northern California district, which he won by a mere 1,455 votes in 2014. Still, the three-term congressman likes that the competitive nature of the race forces him and his opponents to run to the middle.
“In most ways, it [means politicians must be] more pragmatic, and folks have to talk to Republicans. And in that way, you can’t just ignore one party or the other,” Bera tells OZY. “I think there are way too many districts in America where you’re just listening to one side or the other side. That’s part of the dysfunction you see here in Congress.”
But did you notice the one thing these proposals have in common? That’s right: Only Democrats are on board, and they’re locked out of power at the moment. That’s why the efforts are receiving a lukewarm response from their Republican colleagues, like the lone remaining one representing Maryland in Congress, Rep. Andy Harris. He accuses Democrats, like his former governor, Martin O’Malley, of being hypocritical on redistricting. “Clearly in states which are Democrat-controlled like Maryland, they’ve gotten very good at it,” Harris tells OZY.
Nonpartisan line-drawing commissions have come under fire too. In a 2015 criticism of the Supreme Court’s decision upholding Arizona’s move to a nonpartisan system, Hans von Spakovsky, of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, wrote, “No matter how much we complain about gerrymandering and the politicized redrawing of legislative districts, legislators who engage in such behavior are answerable to the people in elections. The bureaucrats appointed to these commissions are not.”
While Republican leaders on Capitol Hill also brush aside Democratic calls to take the politics out of redistricting nationwide, the Supreme Court has already heard oral arguments on the pivotal case from Wisconsin that could permanently define the bounds of partisan redistricting. That’s why, while these proposals aren’t likely to see the light of day soon, the issue is still the talk of the town in the nation’s capital.