Gerrymandering Is Dangerous To The Health Of Our Democracy-- So Why Won't Congress Do Something About It?
Gerrymandering undermines democracy and, from a partisan perspective, it can cut both ways. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, one of the least savory and most corrupt Members of Congress, recently reelected to head the DNC-- and with a fast track to the future House Democratic Leader post in her back pocket-- once, as a member of the Florida state Senate, drew herself a congressional district she could run in the next year-- and has been in Congress ever since. Several of her shady Florida colleagues (both sides of the aisle) did the same thing.
Georgia Blue Dog John Barrow, no friend of this blog's by any stretch of the imagination, has had a very different experience with gerrymandering than the power-crazed Wasserman Schultz. One of the chief sponsors of H.R. 223-- the John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act (the anti-gerrymandering act)-- Barrow has been pursued, relentlessly, by Republicans in the Georgia state legislature, trying to redistrict him out of a seat. A longtime Athens-Clarke County commissioner, Barrow was first elected to Congress in 2004-- on the same day the GOP won control of both Houses of the Georgia state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. One of their first acts was an unprecedented mid-decade gerrymander meant specifically to defeat Barrow. They removed his hometown, solidly blue Athens, from his district and he was forced to move to Savannah to have a chance of staying in Congress. He narrowly won reelection. Last year the legislature, in an attempt to defeat Barrow again, took overwhelmingly blue Savannah out of the district, making it much redder and forcing him, in effect, to move to Augusta. But he once again managed to scrape by and cling to his seat.
H.R. 223 prohibits mid-decade redistricting and puts redistricting into the hands of nonpartisan commissions and takes the job away from craven politicians. "All over the country, the votes of moderates and independents are being suppressed by the partisans who are in control of the redistricting process in their states," writes Barrow on his House website. "The result is that the partisan extremes are over-represented in Congress and the moderate majority is under-represented. This is a bipartisan problem, and it requires a nonpartisan solution."
There's a lot of talk about how Republican legislatures with Republican governors in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Michigan have redrawn their states' districts to the advantage of the GOP. That's completely true. They're as bad as Georgia and as bad as Texas was when Tom DeLay rejiggered the state legislature there. But there are states where the Democrats control legislatures and governors' mansions where they're as bad as the Republicans. Illinois and Maryland, for example, were as outrageous last year as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
So why doesn't Barrow's bill have any co-sponsors? I asked several Members of Congress if it's because he's held in such low esteem on both sides of the aisle. Several mentioned that Steve Cohen (D-TN) has an identical bill, H.R. 278 (also called the John Tanner Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act) and that he has 6 cosponsors, not just progressives but also two of Barrow's fellow Blue Dogs, Collin Peterson (MN) and Mike Michaud (ME). Cohen, who represents Memphis, spoke for many reform-minded members of both parties: “It’s time to take politics out of the redistricting process. Congress is so polarized today that we’re unable to find common ground on the major issues facing our country. Instead of solving our nation’s problems, Congress is just kicking the can down the road and waiting until the next election for answers. I believe that if we eliminate the gerrymandering of districts we will help get more accomplished for our country.” This morning he told me that if the bill eventually passes, starting right after the 2020 census, it would require each state to appoint an independent, transparent congressional redistricting commission, the way California and Arizona do now. The commission would be charged with creating a redistricting plan that emphasizes geographical contiguity and compactness of districts rather than political affiliations or the impact a district’s lines may have on incumbent representatives.
The responses I got from a dozen or so other Members-- many who refused to talk about it on the record-- led me to understand that so many Members have benefited from gerrymandering that they don't see it as a big problem for democracy; they see it as a tool in their own careers, all too often the primary prism through which many Members look at any issue.
Right now, for example, the NAACP is pushing back against Virginia Republicans who have gerrymandered the state so that despite statewide majorities for Obama (1,971,820 to 1,822,522) and Senator Tim Kaine (1,944,992 to 1,758,857) in November, there are 8 Republican districts and only 3 Democratic districts. Virginia Republicans want to start awarding presidential electoral votes based on these unfairly drawn House districts. Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy at the NAACP, explained that “You want to make sure in any system put in place in any state that the outcome is reflective of the actual votes cast. What we have is a system that’s being proposed and actually moving forward in many ways that does not meet that criteria and that raises concerns for us.”
Under the bill proposed by State Sen. Charles Carrico (R), Mitt Romney would have won nine electoral votes to President Obama’s four in 2012 despite losing the popular vote of the state handily. This is because the congressional map is currently gerrymandered in the Republican Party’s favor, a situation that critics note would dilute the impact of African American voters packed into heavily Democratic urban districts while lending more weight to voters in whiter and less populated areas. A similar dynamic would likely occur in other blue states controlled by Republicans that are currently considering rejiggering their electoral votes. Had Carrico’s proposed changes been applied nationally before the 2012 election, Romney would have been elected president even though he received close to 5 million fewer votes than Obama.Although no one was willing to speak on the record about it, the Congressional Black Caucus opposes efforts like Barrow's to stop the partisan gerrymandering. "A lot of their members," one congressman told me, "have benefited from the crooked redrawing of lines. Republicans make deals with African-American politicians for super-safe seats with unassailable majorities in return for supporting GOP plans that strip competitive districts out of the system."
“The way this is structured, racial and ethnic minority groups or any subgroups within the state would find themselves quite frankly more disenfranchised then ever,” Shelton said, adding that the bill would be “moving away from more democratic forms of governance.”
Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is one of the original co-sponsors of Cohen's bill. He told me that “It’s the worst kept secret in Washington that our current redistricting process too often gives incumbent politicians more influence over picking their voters, than voters have in picking their politicians. Both political parties have developed the redistricting process into an art form, punishing opponents and protecting incumbents. Politicians should not be allowed to achieve through the redistricting process what they can’t accomplish at the ballot box. To make Congress more representative, all districts in all states should follow balanced criteria and metrics instead of the corrupt system we have today.” That's why he has the reputation for being one of Congress' most dedicated reformers.