Redistricting Is the First Step in Reclaiming Democracy

I have written before that the crucial difference between what has happened over the last seven years in my home state of Minnesota as compared to Scott Walker’s Wisconsin is that in 2010, Democrat Mark Dayton won a three-way race for governor in the midst of a red tidal wave. As a result, he was able to veto the Republican state legislature’s gerrymandered map during the 2010 redistricting process and send it to the neutral courts. That gave me an up close and personal look at the critical importance of this issue.

As the head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, that is the cause now being championed by former attorney general Eric Holder. He recently published an article on the subject at Crooked Media, where he gives us a taste of the effects of Republican gerrymandering in 2010.

Consider what just happened in Virginia. In races for the House of Delegates, Republicans won only 44 percent of the vote, but have a chance to retain the majority of seats pending a recall. That is a direct result of Republican gerrymandering during the last round of redistricting…

In 2012, Republican candidates for the Wisconsin State Assembly won less than half of all votes but received 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats.

According to a recent study, in 2016, Republicans won as many as 22 additional U.S. House seats based on how their congressional districts were drawn.

While the most direct impact has been to produce majority Republican control in both state legislatures and Congress, Holder points out the indirect consequences.

Districts that are drawn to protect partisan interests mean that politicians are more concerned about defeating primary opponents than representing all general-election voters. That means on issues like creating access to affordable health care, reducing gun violence, addressing climate change, or reforming the criminal justice system, Republicans have become more willing to cater to the fringe of their party than to find common ground with Democrats.

Even as a potential blue wave is developing heading into the 2018 midterms, Holder points out that it might not be enough, given the structural advantages of Republican gerrymandering. So here’s the plan:

Next year, 38 governors and 322 state senators will be elected to four-year terms. These elected officials will determine whether, after the 2020 Census, our legislative maps will allow for democratic accountability, or whether the damage being done to our democracy will continue.

We need all hands on deck for a fight we can—and must—win.

Hmmm…seems like I’ve heard that call for “all hands on deck” before. But this one has a focus: the 38 governor and 322 state senate races that will impact the 2020 redistricting process. As an obvious reminder, gubernatorial candidates run state-wide and are therefore not subject to gerrymandering. That is an additional reason why those races will be critical.

As Zachary Roth pointed out in his book, The Great Suppression, Republicans have engaged in a “bold campaign” that “has amounted to nothing less than an effort to undermine democracy.” Included have been strategies like voter suppression, Citizens United, and preemption. But a central component over the last seven years has been the process that gerrymandered legislative districts and gave them the ability to win legislative majorities, even as they lose the popular vote.

The resistance will have the ability to set up a mechanism to change that when they go to the polls in 2018, while some of the other strategies will require legislative and/or court intervention. That is why someone like Holder has prioritized the first step in reclaiming democracy from the great suppression—the 2020 redistricting process.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.