Will judges save Democrats from their losing selves?
If you can’t win, change the rules. Democrats and progressive activists are joining forces to urge the U.S. Supreme Court to interfere in how election districts are drawn in all fifty states. In Gill v. Whitford, they’re challenging how Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin drew the state’s election map.
The Justices will hear the case on October 3. If they decide to strike down Wisconsin’s map and dictate new rules for election map making, it could turn winners into losers and vice versa across the country. Republicans, who have been on a winning streak and now control both legislative houses and governor’s mansions in 26 states — including Wisconsin — rightly oppose this judicial interference.
Democrats claim Wisconsin’s election map is unfair because Democratic voters are getting “packed” into too few election districts, “wasting” their votes and allowing Republicans to win the majority of districts.
The real problem is these Wisconsin Democrats are concentrated in cities. Democrats there win big in cities, but lose suburban and rural districts. It’s true in many states. Democrats want the Supreme Court to help them win more state seats by requiring that electoral maps spread their votes across more districts.
It’s a brazen political gambit disguised as high-mindedness. They claim to be victims of “gerrymandering” — drawing election districts to favor one party. But they’re not really opposed to gerrymandering. They just want it to favor them.
Democrats hope a Supreme Court victory will restore their political fortunes after the 2020 Census, when states have to redraw their electoral maps.
As for gerrymandering, it’s been around for over 200 years, and Democrats are among its most experienced practitioners.
When James Madison ran for Congress in 1788, rival politicians including his mortal enemy Patrick Henry drew district lines to try to exclude his supporters. Madison won anyway, but manipulating voting districts for partisan advantage was just getting started. Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Constitutional Convention delegate, raised it to an art form in 1812, carving an election district in his state that meandered around Boston like a salamander. A Boston newspaper duplicated it, added claws, fangs, and a tail, and called it a Gerry-mander.
That political monster has been with us ever since. It’s one of the tools pols in both parties use — along with arcane ballot access rules and the perks of incumbency — to rig elections and exclude competition. At its worst, it deprives voters of any meaningful system of self-government. But this corruption should be cleaned up by the voters — not the federal courts.
Voters in thirteen states have already set up independent or bipartisan commissions to draw state legislative district lines after each census. Those states tackled the issue themselves. The democratic way, with a small “d.”
Are these commissions perfect? Hardly. Elections in these states are not always more competitive, because politicians — being who they are — manage to weasel their way in and influence the outcome. In 2014, New York State voters approved a flimsy constitutional amendment establishing a commission to oversee future redistricting, but it doesn’t go far enough, because the legislature can reject whatever map the commission proposes.
A better remedy for corrupt districting is a totally nonpartisan system like Iowa’s that draws district lines without considering party affiliation. The irony is that in most states, even good government groups want some favoritism in district maps — maximizing the voice of religious groups or new immigrant neighborhoods. If partisan favoritism is wrong, so is this.
In the past the Supreme Court has refused to meddle in partisan gerrymandering cases. As Justice Antonin Scalia explained in a 2004 case, “political gerrymandering claims are nonjusticiable” — beyond what courts should handle. That’s how the Justices should rule again in the Wisconsin case. If Democrats want to return to power, they’ll need to broaden their appeal and win over more of America’s suburban and rural voters.
The anatomy of the salamander (Wikimedia Commons)