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    • Simon Bazelon ’21 refects on US politics.

The War on Democracy: The Impact of Gerrymandering

Simon Bazelon ’21
I’m too young to vote, but I follow politics, and I can see that there is a war belong waged in this country.
It’s not a war with guns and soldiers and tanks that is fought in the streets. It doesn’t make headlines or appear on the news every night. It’s a bureaucratic battle, unfolding in state houses, in courtrooms, and in city-halls. The fghters? The politicians of America. The stakes? The future of democracy. The frst principle of a free society —the right to choose who governs you— is under attack, and immediate, collective action is needed to save it.

To be sure, I do not believe that the United States is in short term danger of becoming a true autocracy. Elections are not being postponed, electoral systems have not (yet) been hacked on a mass scale,
and elected offcials have continued to accept the results of elections and judicial decisions. But that does not make the assault we face on the principles of liberal government and society any less real.

Now, we have faced attacks on democracy before. Overt and rampant voter disenfranchisement, on the basis of race, was commonplace less than 50 years ago. But today’s attacks are more technocratic, mathematical, and hidden. The clearest example is the creeping advancement of gerrymandering. Named for a 1812 political cartoon that mocked Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry for drawing an electoral district shaped like a salamander, gerrymandering enables legislators to draw voting districts in such a way as to ensure their party receives a greater share of the seats than it does of the vote. Because of computer modeling and the ruthless partisan drive of map-makers, the scale and effectiveness of gerrymandering has increased astronomically in recent years. District drawing has gone from a blunt instrument to a tool that Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, for example, have used to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” according to Justice Elena Kagan, citing a lower court decision in the 2017 Supreme Court case Cooper v. Harris. The effects of gerrymandering are obvious across the country. In 2012, the frst year that elections were held after the redistricting that followed the 2010 census, Democratic candidates nationally received more votes than Republican candidates in U.S. House elections, yet the Republican party claimed 28 more seats. In North Carolina,
one of the most evenly divided states in the country, Republicans have drawn districts that give them supermajorities with the ability to override the Governor’s vetoes.

Other types of voter manipulation also silence the will of the voters. For example, Florida, along with three other states, completely disenfranchises felons, taking away the vote of 1.7 million former and current incarcerated people, including more than 20% of all African-Americans in the state. Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election in Florida by roughly 115,000 votes, or fewer than one tenth of the amount of voters disenfranchised.

In recent years, unfounded fears about in-person voter fraud —the claim that people go to the polls more than once— have provided political cover for states to make voting increasingly diffcult. In fact, inperson voter fraud is nearly non-existent. Still, it’s often used to justify laws that require an ID to vote, which proponents say ensures the security of the electoral process. But obtaining an ID has a cost.
It can be time-consuming and expensive. Voter ID laws disproportionately depress turnout among poor people and people of color, both groups that tend to vote for Democrats. States like Ohio are also making it harder to remain on the registration rolls if you don’t vote in every election, making exercising one’s rights as a citizen far more diffcult than it needs to be. The groups whose participation shrinks
the most always remain the same: poor people, people with disabilities, and minorities.

All of these factors lead to our present-day scenario, where a minority of the U.S. population is able to elect the offcials who govern the majority, with enormous policy implications. Recently, the Republican party passed the Tax Cut and Jobs Act, a bill which ultimately will increase the defcit by an estimated $1.5 trillion, direct 83% of its gains to the top 1%, and raise taxes on roughly one fourth of all American households. The bill passed by only twenty-four votes in the House. If 12 more Republican Congressmen had voted no, it would have failed. In the 2016 election, gerrymandering cost the Democratic party roughly 22 seats, according to the Associated Press, and voter suppression likely tipped the balance in several more elections. Under a more democratic system, the Tax Cut and Jobs
Act likely would have failed miserably, a fact that seems borne out by its dismal poll numbers. Instead it has become law, and is poised to dramatically worsen inequality in America while only slightly boosting economic growth.

While the anti-democratic side of the war has been winning in recent years ––the Electoral Integrity Project, a group of non-partisan political analysts, no longer considers North Carolina a democracy–– hope remains that America will right itself. In Florida, grassroots organizations are campaigning to restore voting rights to those 1.7 million felons through a ballot initiative, which reached the required number of signatures just two weeks ago. In Michigan, a state where Republicans have consistently held a majority in the state legislature despite losing the popular vote, another ballot initiative would create a bipartisan independent commission to redraw district lines after the next Census. In North Carolina, courts are redrawing several district lines for the state legislature, on the grounds that they were gerrymandered to diminish the infuence of African-American voters. The new legislative districts will almost certainly end the Republican supermajority in North Carolina, allowing Democrats in the State Legislature to uphold the governor’s vetoes. Several states are considering passing Automatic Voter Registration laws, which would register anyone who interacts with a government agency, including the Department of Motor Vehicles, making it easier —for a change— to vote.

Most importantly, the Supreme Court will decide this year whether to end gerrymandering as we know it by declaring gerrymanders on a partisan, and not merely racial, basis to be unconstitutional. If the court does decide to constrain or end partisan gerrymandering, the consequences will reverberate through our electoral system. Waves of lawsuits across the nation will seek to invalidate current electoral maps and to create districts that will elect offcials who more accurately refect the will of voters, ending the governance of the many by the few.

We are at a turning point in the story of American democracy. The elections that will determine who controls redistricting after the 2020 census are less than a year away. These same elected offcials will determine the next stage in the battle for voting rights. I wish I could vote in November. Going to the polls in November 2018 isn’t just a referendum on the legislation and policies implemented in
the last year. Voters will also be adding their voices to democracy.
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