There was one thing voters nationwide agreed on in last week’s election: They hate gerrymandering, and have had it with politicians drawing their own districts, choosing their own voters, and distorting democracy.
Red states, blue states, purple states — it made no difference. Colorado, Michigan, and Missouri all approved ballot questions that would remove the power to draw congressional and state legislative districts from partisans and hand the responsibility to citizen commissions or nonpartisan entities.
It was a good night for fair maps. Previous legal victories over partisan and racial gerrymanders in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida led to new, court-ordered maps that helped provide the Democratic cushion in the House.
But here’s the bad news: The next redistricting, after the 2020 census, is fast approaching. Few states remain that allow voters to treat this cancer via initiative. The advanced mapping software and Big Data that made the 2010 process such a partisan free-for-all have only become more sophisticated and precise.
The Supreme Court has already made it clear that it will not rescue democracy. The justices unanimously punted on two partisan gerrymandering cases last term, even before Brett Kavanaugh replaced Anthony Kennedy and swung the court rightward. And litigation takes so long that we might still be arguing about 2010 maps from Wisconsin, Maryland, and North Carolina through the next census.
So now what? T his year’s victorious ballot questions could point the way. Nervous partisans in Ohio and Colorado, after all, were willing to negotiate reforms because they feared what might happen if the other side won total control over redistricting in 2020. That proved to be a good bet for Colorado Republicans, since Democrats on Tuesday swept the governor’s office as well as the state House and Senate.
To be sure, Democrats who believe they can flip enough chambers before the next round of maps should take a close look at Tuesday’s results from Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, where the party swept three Senate seats, governorships, and other statewide offices — but failed to win back a single legislative chamber. On these maps, it required the largest Democratic vote in more than a decade simply to break supermajorities in the Pennsylvania and Michigan senates.
But Republicans might think twice about being tied to a shrinking base of white rural voters, and what that means for the party’s future.
The fact is that no one knows what 2020 will bring. Democrats did crack those Michigan and Pennsylvania supermajorities and bust the veto-proof GOP edge in both North Carolina chambers. Victories in governors’ races in Wisconsin and Kansas will provide Democrats with veto power over extreme maps, while Republicans won potential seats at the table by holding governorships in Massachusetts and Maryland.
If courts won’t step in, and citizens are running out of chances, it’s politicians who will draw the majority of maps in 2021. Now is the time for legislators to enact the changes voters overwhelmingly demand when given a voice — if not comprehensive changes, at least clear improvements.
Taking on partisan gerrymandering might mean altering the DNA of politicians — but it would only take determination and will to at least curb its worst excesses. Some states have banned the use of outside political data in drawing maps or banned any lines that favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent. That’s a good start, but the worst examples from the last cycle suggest additional nonpartisan principles that could guide reform.
Legislators must insist on genuine transparency and guarantee meaningful public hearings. Academic studies have praised California’s independent commission for keeping communities of interest together, and that’s because commissioners embarked on a weeks-long statewide listening tour.
Beyond that, the post-2010 redistricting could not have been less open. Ohio Republicans barricaded themselves into a hotel suite nicknamed “The Bunker” to draw maps, and communicated over personal Gmail accounts. Florida Republicans ran a shadow redistricting process and smuggled their maps into the public process through friends, neighbors, and phony e-mail addresses. Maryland Democrats conducted sham public hearings while partisan operatives, taking cues from incumbents, drew the real maps behind closed doors.
This must stop. Mapmakers, staff, legislators, and consultants should all use official e-mail accounts that are subject to state open records laws. E-mail trails have been crucial evidence for courts in concluding when gerrymanders have gone too far. Legislators should also be required to retain all draft maps that help produce the final lines, since they help show how maps progressed and what turns they took along the way.
California, along with many of the states that passed reforms on Tuesday, requires commissioners to justify their work. That ought to become commonplace: If mapmakers want to divide cities or counties, or design districts that resemble Pennsylvania’s infamous Donald Duck Kicking Goofy, they should explain those decisions to us all.
Better still, legislators could embrace technology that helps reveal gerrymanders rather than that which makes them easier to design. Some of the strongest evidence in the victorious North Carolina and Pennsylvania lawsuits came when political scientists and mathematicians used supercomputers to draw neutral maps, then compared those to the ones selected by politicians. In Pennsylvania, for example, computers drew tens of thousands of maps but did not produce districts as extreme as the ones enacted by legislators.
The gold-standard reform is the Fair Representation Act, introduced by US Representative Don Beyer of Virginia. It would slay the gerrymander by eliminating winner-takes-all single-member districts and converting them into larger multi-member districts with representatives chosen via ranked-choice voting, which passed its first congressional election test in Maine this week with flying colors. While that approach has been embraced by a growing number of liberals and conservatives, it’s a longer-term lift to build support inside Congress.
Five more states have come together and resoundingly replaced something increasingly anti-democratic with something far better. Two years ago, gerrymandering was a wonky topic that made eyes glaze over. Now opposition to it is the one thing that seems to unite voters nationwide. Time for politicians to get on board. The people are leading the way.David Daley is the author of “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and a senior fellow at FairVote.