The Pot’s Calling the Kettle Red. But It’s Also Blue.
Partisan gerrymandering isn’t one-sided, and framing it as such does more harm than good.
This June, the Supreme Court of the United States will announce its decision on two major cases: Gill v. Whitford and Benisek v. Lamone. What do these cases have in common? They both deal with extreme cases of partisan gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering, or the drawing of electoral constituency boundaries in such a way as to disproportionately benefit one party, has been around in one form or another since 1812. In recent years it’s become a convenient political bogeyman for Democrats, who have used it time and time again to attack the GOP for supposedly abusing the redistricting power of state legislatures to benefit their party at the expense of our broader democracy. And they have a point — Republicans have long used their control of many state legislatures to turn gerrymandering in their favor, and at this point make almost no efforts to hide that fact.
However, there’s a problem with trying to frame gerrymandering, as so many Democrats do, as a GOP issue — and that problem is that we do it, too.
The most notable example of this is Maryland, which in 2011 had 6 of its 8 U.S. House seats occupied by Democrats. However, that wasn’t good enough for Maryland Dems—they wanted a 7–1 majority. So, they hired a DC consulting firm to undertake the task of gerrymandering the state’s map to knock off a Republican congressman. The result is a contorted monstrosity, with several districts forming shapes as fantastical as the “salamander”-shaped district which in 1812 gave gerrymandering its current name. The map has been challenged in court, and in fact, is being reviewed by the Supreme Court this term. This example goes to show that when Democrats control the levers of power, we have in the past had not just the capability but the willingness to manipulate electoral boundaries for our own political interests.
None of this, however, is to say that the guilt falls equally on both sides. The number of Democratic gerrymanders pales in comparison to the number of Republican ones, and some argue that de facto segregation makes it much harder for Democrats to gerrymander than for Republicans to do the same.
The problem with our framing of the issue, then, isn’t that we gerrymander just as much as the other side—we’re not. The problem is that we do it at all, at the same time as we paint gerrymandering as a purely one-sided issue used exclusively by Koch-backed Republicans out to destroy democracy. Our history of using these same tactics, even if it is to a much lesser extent than the other side, means we have effectively ceded the moral high ground necessary to make gerrymandering into a partisan issue.
In reality, there is much to be gained from viewing and presenting the fight against gerrymandering in a nonpartisan light. The problem isn’t that Republican state legislatures are drawing these districts; it’s that they’re being drawn by state legislatures at all. Whatever party controls a legislative majority and the power to control redistricting will always face the temptation to abuse that power, and once both sides have done so it no longer matters which party succumbs to that temptation more often. It is far past time for every state in the nation to move away from having their legislatures draw districts and instead adopt laws requiring redistricting to be carried out by courts or nonpartisan commissions.
By reframing this issue in a nonpartisan way, we will not only be able to draw support for the cause from across the aisle, but we will also increase our chances of maybe being able to actually accomplish something to stop gerrymandering. Instead of assuming and insinuating that half the population is conspiring to subvert the will of the people based on their party affiliation, we should focus on bringing as many of them as possible into the fold to work together on a way to fix our broken democracy. After all, isn’t that what democracy itself is really all about?