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Why Democrats Should Think Twice Before Seeking To End Gerrymandering


Democrats were elated to learn this week that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up a case that seeks to eliminate partisan gerrymandering. They assume that doing so will eliminate the advantage Republicans have had in the U.S. House of Representatives in the last 25 years where, although Democrats often poll as many votes as Republicans nationwide, the GOP has won majorities in all but two of the last 12 elections.

They assume the reason for these losses can be ascribed to nefarious plots hatched in the majority of state legislatures Republicans control. If Justice Anthony Kennedy joins with the court’s solidly liberal quartet, it’s possible that the result will be a historic decision that will end a practice that dates back to the beginning of the republic.

But Democrats need to be careful about what they wish for. By asking the court to ban gerrymanders, liberals are pitting one of their interests against another. On the one hand, a ban on partisan gerrymanders would potentially hamstring GOP efforts to maximize their current advantage. But it could run headlong up against the way the court’s interpretation of the Voting Rights Act has mandated the creation of majority-minority districts. It’s far from clear that the high court can thread the political needle so as to allow those racial gerrymanders that have helped black and minority politicians without also hurting the Democratic Party that their voters support.

Safe Seats Versus Competitive Seats

Both parties have always treated the process of drawing districts mandated every ten years by census results as an opportunity to increase their chances of winning while harming their opponents. In recent decades this has become more scientific as computer analysis has replaced the old-school-vote counting Americans have used since the days of Elbridge Gerry (our fifth vice president, but better known for the Massachusetts district plan he signed as governor in 1812 that gave its name to the practice).

But the sophisticated nature of these efforts isn’t what has enabled Republicans to weaponize the process in the last generation. Rather it is the way court rulings have authorized draining Democrats’ most reliable voting group out of competitive districts.

The plaintiffs in the suit the Supreme Court will hear have argued that the level of what they consider illegal gerrymandering can be distinguished from other factors that go into drawing districts by counting “wasted votes.” Since members of legislatures and Congress are elected in first-past-the-post-style elections, any margin of victory more than one creates wasted votes for each party. If Democrats are winning a few districts in landslides while losing others by narrow margins, that creates a great many “wasted votes” and, at least in their view, undermines democracy and the right of all voters.

Wisconsin Republicans, whose redistricting plan is the focus of the case, have parlayed 48.5 percent of the vote into almost 60 out of 99 seats in 2012 and then 52 percent into 63 seats in 2014. Democrats see this as something that ought to be illegal even if it is the sort of trick both Republicans and Democrats have been pulling on each other every chance they’ve gotten for more than 200 years.

But while the math here seems to speak for itself in many of the states that would be affected by a ruling for the plaintiffs, the main reason for the large numbers of “wasted votes” has less to do with GOP cleverness than with a measure that satisfies one group of Democratic politicians.

Spreading Minorities Around Dilutes Their Power

By the time of the post-1990 census round of redistricting, federal courts had moved on from necessary efforts to ensure that minority voters weren’t being deprived of the franchise to ways to increase their representation. The solution was court-mandated majority-minority districts that more or less guaranteed that members of groups that had faced discrimination in the past were given a leg up towards winning elections.

But to accomplish this, those in charge often have to siphon minority voters from a number of surrounding areas into one homogeneous district in which they will constitute a majority. Since blacks and Hispanics vote for Democrats by overwhelming margins, that creates massive numbers of “wasted votes.”

Where once gerrymandering in the South was designed to disenfranchise blacks, now it empowers them while hurting their party. This results in exactly the kind of districts that are geographic monstrosities stretching across natural and political boundaries that opponents of gerrymandering despise.

The process of ensuring minority representation creates situations like that of South Carolina. To create the seat held by Rep. James Clyburn, the assistant Democratic leader in the House and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, African-Americans are gerrymandered into a district that makes Gerry’s original salamander-shaped scheme look like a geometric design. As applied throughout the South, this has been devastating to Democrats while largely transforming the party into one where, ironically, black politicians have a disproportionate amount of influence.

Could Clyburn still hold that seat if some of the areas largely populated by African-Americans were taken out and plopped into a neighboring district to increase the Democrats’ chances? Maybe. But when you start fine-tuning district drawing that way, it amounts to the moral equivalent of what Republicans are accused of doing, and likely wouldn’t make any of the district boundaries more contiguous.

While some blacks would like to see their party’s share of seats increase, it’s not likely that the black and Hispanic politicians that are the beneficiaries of this kind of manipulation would be happy if their districts — which often amount in practice to one-party fiefdoms that are the modern American version of pre-reform era British parliamentary “rotten boroughs” — were sacrificed to help white Democrats.

Somebody Is Always Going to Lose in This Game

More to the point, the problem with courts trying to second-guess the traditional role of legislatures is that like-minded voters tend to be concentrated in certain geographic areas. As any map that showed voting patterns indicates, Democrats — whether or not they are minorities — are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas, while Republicans are more spread out more evenly in suburban and rural regions.

The problem here isn’t necessarily bad faith from Republicans as it is a process that is never going to create a result that is precisely proportionate to the actual number of votes cast. No matter how the Supreme Court rules, legislators will always have political motivations when they draw districts. No matter how you seek to keep the way of drawing the lines fair, someone’s political ox is always being gored no matter where they are placed.

Changing the current system will hurt some people and help others, but since voting patterns are not always static — as the GOP may be about to learn as they seek to live with the burden an unpopular president places on their campaigns — there’s no perfect way of predicting which votes will be wasted. But Democrats need to be careful that in getting their way now, they will be infuriating their most important interest group in a way that might cause even more trouble in the long run.